|Ganem reflects on his past in the Massachusetts town where it all began. Photo by Michael Rose.|
**SOMERVILLE, MA---The high was always good--a straight shot to the heart, an immediate cooling of the blood and a washed out invincibility that pushed it all away. For Matt Ganem, it was an escalating drug addiction. Drug deals, court dates, lost friends--a general erasure of one's good standing imprint on society. But the high was always good.
He wasn't born in Somerville, but for Ganem the city was a series of mazes to get lost in, escape from and eventually return to clean. Raised in a broken home, Ganem and his sister dealt with the effects of their parents' divorce. His mother, over-burdened by raising two children and sick of seeing Ganem come home with bad grades and a worse attitude, told him to get out. "It's hard being a woman trying to raise a rebellious man," he said with a grin and an aching laugh. He was 16.
During our interview Ganem spoke candidly and bluntly about his struggle with addiction, often referring to himself as an addict as if it were his official title. He's unafraid to talk and write every aspect of his drug problems. With his first book of poetry, In the Shadow of an Addict, he hopes that slammed-down honesty will help others to open up, and those on the outside to understand. "Addiction has no color, creed, social class or sexual preference," Ganem stated. "It attacks everybody the same."
Ganem won't say where he's from originally, except that it's in the Greater Boston area. He said he doesn't want to assign addiction to any specific locale. But soon after being thrown out and falling in Somerville he discovered the pleasant buzzing of Oxycontin. "When I first started it was with other people at a party," he said. Friends would split pills, dice them up on the counter, snort them, feel good, and live to see another day. Ganem entered the fray without much thought of consequence. "When you're doing it with other people it seems socially acceptable," he explained. No stranger to drug culture at the time, he said, "It was the Oxys that grabbed a hold of you and didn't let go."
Ganem slid into a bubble--this wasn't relaxing with friends anymore. He began hoarding and snorting all alone. "Once you physically need it, you're willing to do anything to get it," he said. He began selling just to keep his own blown-up habit going. He was arrested, dodged the law, skipped court dates. Eventually there wasn't a crime he wouldn't commit to keep up a "couple hundred dollar-a-day habit."
|Cover of The Shadow of an Addict|
"The interesting thing about Somerville," said Jasen Sousa, whose own J-Rock Publishing is behind The Shadow of an Addict, "is that you can't always see what goes on above the surface." Sousa's Fancygirl tackles the story of a teenage single mother using the Internet and her body to make ends meet. "Drugs plague the youth of Somerville. It's important to have artists like Matt, who have lived and experienced it," convey their story so others can relate.
With so much happening around Ganem, it seemed someone was always close by waiting to take advantage of the vulnerable. "Somebody can come up to you and say, 'I have this little bag and it'll make you feel better.' You don't even care what's in it," he told me. "And that bag was heroin." Stronger, dirtier and cheaper; the high would continue.
His dependency strengthened, leading him, one day, toward Arthur D. Healey School (5 Meacham St.) where he waited to make a deal and wound up arrested. Bailed out, broke and intolerably junk-sick, Ganem had to play economics again and convinced himself shooting the drug would be the most cost effective way to maintain his high. Shrouded from society, paranoia leaking into his skull, he left Somerville fearing the cops had it out for him. He moved in the shadows, slept in the streets, in the Boston Commons, until ending up sleeping head-to-toe with another struggling friend in South Boston. He paid rent in dope.
When his friend left the rooming house to get help at the Boston Hamilton House in Dorchester, Ganem realized the walls were closing in. "I looked in the mirror and my skin was sunken, black under my eyes. I looked defeated," he said. "If I keep going like this," he thought then, "my life isn't lasting."
Knowing he had to move on from where he was, but not exactly focused on quitting dope, Ganem went to St. Elizabeth's in Brighton for detox. "I showed up with my bags thinking I had a bed when [it was only] an interview," he said. "I didn't know any better." The house director gave Ganem eight hours to see how he could handle it. Thinking he'd wait it out and get high afterward, he bided his time, sat in on a few classes, waiting, and to his surprise was given a room.
That pivotal moment was the first step in the climb to his recovery. "When you're an addict, getting high is easier than getting clean," Ganem said. "The insanity you go through getting high--the vicious cycle--it's easier to keep repeating."
The house provided him with something that slipping away in the doze of heroin doesn't afford: structure. "It reorganized my life," he said. Ganem was expected to follow a rigid schedule with 20 or 30 others in the same space. One hour each day was spent studying addiction, where he picked apart his behaviors and summoned the courage to move forward. Now 27, Ganem has been sober six years.
As a kid Ganem wrote poetry in the classroom and raps at recess. When his body first felt the full awakening shot of sobriety those early wordplay drills came rushing back. "Once you first get clean there's a lot of emotion you deal with. You hold all your pain [while using]. I bottled a lot of stuff," he said. "As an addict, you're ashamed. Nobody wants to be an addict. Nobody wants to admit to their parents, their friends, to people. You end up getting high because you're ashamed. You isolate yourself [and] a lot of stuff starts coming out. I started writing just to get it out."
The Shadow of an Addict is made up of six chapters and walks the reader through Ganem's tribulations. There are some painful scenes, each one upfront with the simmering details. "I write ugly," he said. "You'll walk in my shoes as you read the book." Sousa, the publisher, added, "Matt's poetry is very lyrical and has a hip-hop style." The book is available on Amazon and in 30 cities, he said, scattered among bookstores. Ganem has also hit the road to deliver books around New England and has personally mailed copies out. He now hustles books.
|Ganem up against the fence. Photo by Michael Rose.|
Before going to print with his book Ganem wanted to share a dedication page to those affected by addiction. "I know a lot of actors or hip-hop artists forget their fans [after] they first start," he said. "I wanted people to have a piece of my book." He took to Facebook opening up the offer to print any names of loved ones shaped by the struggle, in memoriam. The gesture was honest, but negative feedback seeped in, with some people seeing the move as exploitative. Ganem was rattled. "I didn't do this to be put on a pedestal," he said. "I'd rather be successful in that I've touched people's lives and helped them get through a hard time." Past the piercing negativity, though, Ganem is finding success.
Last year Ganem was nominated for Performer of the Year by arts organization RAW Boston. He's been performing across the region, opening hip-hop shows and competing in poetry slams. The live performances are an avenue he didn't account for but enjoys. "I try to open eyes every time I touch the mic."
Ganem stays defiant and focused on his addiction, but a pull in his voice when he discusses it suggests it's not as easy and redemptive as it seems. When I ask Ganem to tell the most rewarding part of his recovery he does not hesitate. "Not dying. I should've been dead." His face turns stone. "The last months I was getting high I just wanted to die."
He thinks back to the eight hours he spent waiting for an interview at the halfway house to our interview six years later in Bloc 11 (11 Bow St.). "You don't think life is beautiful until you get out of it. I like fresh snow falling on trees," he said before trying to pull the statement away. "I like very stupid little things you wouldn't expect to notice." His slight embarrassment quickly turns thoughtful. "I could only focus on one thing for so long. When you get high, you get high with whatever problems you have. Now I just gotta face them."
The Shadow of an Addict is available at http://www.tinyurl.com/shadowaddict.
from Somerville Scout (No. 19--January/February)
Michael Rose Photography