A truly accurate account of my descent into criminality would start on the day in 1981 when the New York Times published the first article about a bizarre new immune-suppressive syndrome just being seen among gay men. That was the day, figuratively speaking, I got up from one chair and moved to the one next to it, and as events unfolded in increasingly dark increments, kept moving to the chair next over, ever closer to the edge of a cliff I could not see until I was teetering into it. That’s how the most dramatic change happens — not in a leap from innocent beginnings to tragic ends but in a long series of shifts, the later ones making sense only in relation to the shift that occurred directly before each. I’m examining this trajectory slice by slice in a prequel to Ink from the Pen, the book about my incarceration, but a lot of readers of that book wanted a sneak peek. So I cobbled together a kind of highlight reel of the major inflection points that occurred over 25 years — and structured it as a “How-To” Guide, just for fun.
1. Get Some Very Bad News.
In the early 80s, my brother and I came out to each other as gay; just a few years later we both tested positive for HIV. My brother got sick first, and I moved to the West Coast to take care of him. Once he was hospitalized, I handled his bills and was soon signing his name on checks.
After he died in 1991, I settled his affairs. I paid off the outstanding balances on his credit cards, but never reported his death either to the bank nor cancelled any card. Why did I commit this first crucial deception? Panic. My brother’s journey from diagnosis to death had taken only three years; I expected no better. He had been a doctor with a good income and no debt. Having access to his credit gave me options: to keep the apartment we shared, perhaps to travel.
At first, I left my brother’s credit cards in a drawer, but I did use some of the “convenience checks” they sent him when I had trouble paying the rent of the two-bedroom we’d shared. (I did get a roommate, just not right away.) Then, by pure happenstance, my brother’s driver’s license came up for renewal, requiring a new photograph. It was also the first year they added a fingerprint.
Sure enough, the clerk barely glanced at the photo on my brother’s old license, to which I bore a family resemblance, in any case. I was sent to the photo line, and three weeks later a license came in the mail with my face and fingerprint — and my brother’s name on it.
2. Make Lying as Familiar as Telling the Truth.
Frankly, it was exciting to have an alias, to have gotten away with something so dramatic. After so much powerlessness in the face of AIDS, this felt like I was somehow striking back. And I didn’t think I was doing anything so wrong, really. Identity theft of a dead person, even your brother (especially your brother?) felt like a victimless crime. (At this point, the convenience checks were loans I fully intended to pay back — and did, in fact.)
When my T-cells dipped below 200 and I contracted AIDS-related pneumonia, I stopped working. I could have gotten by on disability, and help from my mom, but I had every intention of crossing of few things off my bucket list in the time remaining to me. I traveled across America and Canada, and twice to Europe (I had family in France). I never said no to a night out on the town, and found out the secret to drinking like a gentleman was a snort of meth in between cocktails. I bartended off the books to help make ends meet, but my credit card debt (incurred in both my name and my brother’s) steadily ticked up. When I was close to maxed out, I cashed the first of two $100,000 life insurance policies I had carefully maintained. (These viatical settlements were available to policyholders who were actuarially determined to be terminally ill.)
With the settlement, I paid my cards down to zero. Whew! My little foray into financial irregularity had actually worked out okay. I borrowed some money and paid it back, is all. No harm done, right? I cut up all of my brother’s credit cards but one. Just in case. It wasn’t hard to rationalize — a panel of doctors had just written in black and white that within 24 months my demise would turn the settlement company a tidy profit.
3. Lose Every Bearing You Ever Had.
After my brother died, there was an 18-month period where six close friends died every few months. I don’t know what that much grief does to a brain, not to mention the anticipation of being next to die, but I’m convinced the neurological effects of both are real. It’s as if a back-up system in the cerebral cortex starts to take over, one that makes decisions based solely on perceived self-preservation.
Meth was like a magic wand every time I used it. I was feeling adrift and disoriented, and speed instantly provided the illusion of purpose — even if that manifested itself mostly in a drive to hook up. (Meth supercharges the libido.) My occasional use became regular, and then daily. I recognized that I was addicted, but sincerely believed meth was what allowed me to continue functioning. I also had a circle of gay, HIV+ friends who were also turning into heavy users, and we endlessly reinforced each other’s rationalizations.
Mostly, when we were high, we weren’t thinking about when AIDS would get us too. We imagined we were conquering our fear, and that felt like a spiritual triumph. Even if we actually were achieving some kind of true acceptance, (instead of the drug doing it for us) it was a dangerous perception. Because if you lose your fear of death, you can lose your fear of all sorts of things you should be afraid of, like getting caught for committing fraud, for example. When I started running out of money again, I pulled my brother’s credit card out of the drawer. And when I eventually reached its limit, I cashed in my other viatical settlement. (The new miracle drugs were starting to work, and I correctly sensed it was now or never.) My balances went back to zero. No consequences in sight.
4. Try to Get Back to Normal.
One morning in 1997 I woke up, still a little buzzed from the weekend, but realizing something had to change. What if I actually survived the epidemic? What seemed like wild optimism just a year before suddenly was entirely plausible. Meanwhile, I’d lost the very years most people advance most in their career — the mid-30s. Impulsively, I scoured the want ads at the back of a community newspaper. There was a job opening for an assistant magazine editor at a national gay magazine. I sent in my resume and was called for an interview. Within a week I was back at work. Like many a “dream job” in an industry everyone wants to work in, it paid terribly. Which is why I filled in my brother’s name on the W-2. I was paid as him while I continued to collect disability as me. Another deception that was easy to justify, as I could have never survived on that salary alone, and despite the new meds, my numbers were very shaky. It was the best job I’d ever had, and gave me incredible hope that I could catch up to where I would have been as a writer if I’d never stopped working. I couldn’t shake the meth habit totally, but never called in sick. I certainly became adept at not appearing high when I was.
On the side I wrote a screenplay, which was optioned, and I thought I was on my way in the film industry. Then the director died of lung cancer. Another director was attached and I was actually sent to Rome to do rewrites with him. I had made it! And then he too died, of an HIV-related illness he had hidden from everybody. I scrambled to shop the script elsewhere, but a crucial momentum had been lost. In a final kick in the teeth, the magazine was sold and the new owners opened offices in New York, with new staff. I was devastated.
This series of reversals felt like a verdict of failure on my grand comeback into a new and normal life. This defeatist framing was nonsense, but it allowed me to justify continuing to do meth. When it would have made all the sense in the world to get clean, I went further into my addiction. Of course, it didn’t help that I’d fallen in love with my dealer. I’d never had so much access to drugs.
5. Make the Definitely Abnormal Your New Normal.
When my boyfriend was arrested, I put down his $5000 bail on a credit card I had completely paid off. My “cushion” was gone. When he went to prison, instead of being permanently scared “straight,” I found myself slipping into the very life he’d left behind. I wasn’t even in denial about how reckless my behavior was — I admitted it was foolhardy. But meth has a way of telling you what’s insane is still a rational choice. Particularly if that choice is a profitable one.
At first I just sold enough meth to pay for my own. But the friends I obtained for asked for friends of theirs, and it wasn’t long before I figured out I could turn a tidy little profit. I discovered that a drug dealer who delivers when he says he will can grow at a breakneck pace. Illegal or not, the rules of any small business applied. Answer the phone on the first ring. Offer samples. Guarantee your quality. Even employees weren’t hard to find. There was always a tweeker who needed a place to stay, and would gladly deliver for me or walk the dog for a roof over their head and a free buzz. (Later on in 12-step programs, I would hear a phrase: “We surrounded ourselves with lower companions.” Indeed.)
Having been a bartender, I didn’t consider selling drugs any morally different than slinging drinks. But not being ashamed of something is hardly the same as being proud of it. Whether the substance is illegal or not, facilitating addiction is never ennobling. Someone like me should have been writing book or plays or teaching somewhere. I was unable to walk away from the fast cash and being high all the time, but inside, I knew I was also dishonoring my God-given talents.
I tried not to think about my family, but I knew I simply wasn’t present as a son and a brother in a way I should have been if I was leading a normal life. I also began to break off long-term friendships for fear they would find out what I was doing and confront me on it. My list of clients got longer, but my circle of friends became very small.
About a year or so into my dealing, one of my clients told me what another dealer had told him. “You can get away with this for about 18 months, max. Then everyone gets arrested.” I thought he was probably right, but I was paralyzed. My ex-boyfriend got out of prison but kept his distance, sober now, and I fell for someone new — one of my clients. Our relationship was so entwined with using together that I knew if I got clean it would be over. It was a lethal infatuation.
On August 23, 2003 a battering ram broke down my door, followed by a SWAT team. It was terrifying — not to mention overkill. (I didn’t even own a gun.) I spent two nights in jail until I was bailed out. I took a taxi from jail to the apartment of my best friend, and as I immediately got high, told him that I was definitely out of the business. The next day, I split all my clients between two of my employees, naively thinking they would support me as I had supported them. They couldn’t even support themselves. It turned out I was a damn good dealer. Every dissatisfied customer eventually turned back to me.
I tried to get by with a smaller boutique clientele, but this meant turning down money, so of course I made exception after exception. The truth was that no leaf was ever going to be turned over if I didn’t get clean, and by that time I had such a distorted vision of sobriety the prospect terrified me. I thought the experience of being drug-free would resemble the bland and gray anhedonia I had felt during the short breaks I had taken over the previous decade, not realizing that the brain needs time to recover the ability to feel pleasure naturally.
When I was arrested, I had asked the arresting officer if I could take my AIDS meds with me to jail, and he had refused. This meant that I was 48 hours off my medication, and when I came into court with a convenient attack of the shingles, my public defender was able to imply a lawsuit might be in the offing. The D.A. recommended the lightest sentence possible: 300 hours of community service, $2200 in restitution and three years probation. If I had also been ordered into 12-step meetings, I would probably not be writing this article. But the legal system seems to have pitiful little understanding of how much dealing and addiction go hand in hand. Once you start selling, you are cast in the role of a “pusher,” in it solely for the money. If the culture has finally grown a little more compassionate about addicts themselves, dealers are still totally dehumanized.
6. Completely Jump Over the Shark. Way Over.
By any measure, I had dodged a bullet, and yet there I was, slipping right back into the line of fire. Ten years of getting away with things made having gotten caught unacceptable to me. Even though what was asked of me was entirely reasonable (and expungeable) I couldn’t manage to shake the thought that there was some way to make it all unhappen. A month or so after my sentencing, an idea to do just that came to me.
At first it was too outrageous a thought, even for someone who had already lived a double life for a decade. I pushed it out of my mind again and again, and again and again it crept back in. Finally I decided it couldn’t hurt to do a little R&D into its feasibility. I was fairly certain it couldn’t be done — so what would it hurt to make sure? After all, it wasn’t illegal to teach yourself forgery, right?
I strongly suspect systems are considerably tighter now, but in 2003, I managed to exploit a window that newly available color printers provided. (I also had fairly decent Photoshop skills.) I scanned my brother’s original death certificate into the computer, and carefully brushed out his name, inserting my own. I altered the dates and addresses. I then had a stamp made for a fictitious little league team, the “Corona Cougars.” The raised “CC” was an excellent stand in for “Certified Copy.” In a supremely ballsy move, I reproduced warnings listing the steps that should carefully be taken to verify the document’s authenticity. I found specialty paper that wasn’t quite the same quality as an original death certificate, but took a chance that the police would be less familiar with one from Washington State. And under the “Cause of Death,” I didn’t have to alter anything. I knew the fear and misconceptions about AIDS were also in my favor. By 2004, the death rates had plummeted because of the new drugs, but most people — including detectives — still reacted to HIV as if it were the death sentence it used to be.
I had long had a second phone line in the house, and I listed the number as the contact of the funeral home, leaving an appropriate outgoing message just in case they called to check. (They never did.) For good measure, I also forged a paid obituary, as it would look in the New York Times.
The mad genius part of me felt a tremendous rush at seeing how truly impressive my handiwork was. And in the context of my increasing nervousness about getting caught again, my outlandish scheme started to feel more and more like a risk worth taking. I didn’t want the hard work of repairing my life; I wanted the magic of having my cake and eating it too.
I wrote to the probation officer, posing as my own brother Luke, the one I’d kept “alive” on paper for a decade. In this scenario, I had just returned from “Mark’s” funeral in Seattle to settle “his” affairs. To “my” horror, I’d discovered a legal situation that was a complete shock to me, but that “I hoped to keep from our fragile mother.” I asked for advice. Did I need to meet with them personally, or would the enclosed documents settle the situation?
It worked. “Luke” received a sympathetic letter back expressing the condolences of the State of California. The entire case file was hereby closed.
6 ½. “Forget” to move.
Oops! Probably, if you successfully fake your death, you should move — at least crosstown. But I had a rent-stabilized two-bedroom apartment in West Hollywood for $625 — of course I didn’t move. Still, had I simply stopped dealing, I would have probably been okay. But whomever had informed on me in the first place no doubt reported back that I was very much alive and well and still selling drugs (I never found out who that was. I never wanted to know, as it was almost certainly someone quite close to me.)
Three months after having successfully (if temporarily) faked my own death, there was that horrible banging on the door again. This time, I ran to open it before they could break it down. This time, there would be no bail, as I was considered a flight risk (imagine that?) When I met the probation officer though, (the same as the first time) he was impressed. “In all my years doing this job, I never saw anybody pull something off like that. You the man!” He shook my hand and told me he was really glad I wasn’t dead after all, because he really liked me. “But,” he added, “you know I’ve got to send you down to spend some time with the big boys, right?” A fairly good lawyer got my eight charges knocked down to four — two on drugs and two on forgery. I was given 16 months. With half-time, I served exactly 9 ½ months in total.
7. Find Freedom by Losing It.
Prison sucks, and I consider it a piss-poor way to handle any and all non-violent crime. That said, it was far from the worst thing that ever happened to me. (I would go back 10 times over if it meant not losing a brother.) It got me clean, which was utterly necessary for my life to ever work again. It delivered me from the sordid business of drug dealing, and finally detached me from the sorry entourage of barnacles I’d invited into my life. I repaired my relationship with my sisters and my mother. Most of all, I rediscovered myself as a writer.
I had a large family on both sides of the Atlantic who were understandably worried sick about me, and realized almost immediately that documenting my daily life inside with as much insight and acuity as I could muster would serve both to reassure them and as a kind of amends. What they had prayed for was a return of the “old Mark,” and I was determined that they see as much evidence as possible of that man in my letters. Ever since high school, I had always been the one predicted to have great things in store for me. I wanted to earn back the faith they’d once had in me.
Three months into my sentence, my sister suggested posting my letters online. I was only vaguely familiar with blogs, which were fairly new, but could see how my letters might read like dispatches from the front. It was also a way for my sister and I to solidify a new closeness. She had just moved to a new city right before my arrest and was going through her own sense of displacement. She told me later that typing up my posts anchored her every day just as writing them anchored mine.
I started to make more friends than I imagined I would, simply by listening to men who were not used to being listened to. Their stories made great material for the blog, but it was the act of writing them down that proved the most therapeutic for me. If you can live in the present in prison, you are getting excellent training for living in the moment anywhere.
There turned out to be a lot of counter-intuitive strategies to surviving in prison, including generosity. Most prosperous inmates guarded their full lockers, and shared their provisions with a select few, if any. But I became known for never denying anyone a shot of coffee, and they remembered the kindness. It’s not, after all, as if I had done anything to deserve the unstinting love and support of my family — rather the opposite. How could I not share what was so freely given to me?
My being gay turned into a strange passport for doing all kinds of things differently. I even got away with plainly stating that if there was ever a riot, I would not fight. Non-violence is definitely an idea that can get you beat up for espousing in prison, but my unapologetic openness about it was somehow respected. It was one of the ways I found to fight against the racial segregation — publicly refusing to view the non-white inmates as my adversaries.
Admittedly my complex circumstances hardly make me a poster boy for the typical prisoner experience. Few men who are as blessed with my education and family ever end up in prison, much less get to be followed in real time on a blog. Despite the numerous occasions that were dicey in the extreme, I never forgot how lucky I was compared to most of the men there.
Addiction is a serious public health problem and should be treated as such. The war on drugs is a disastrous waste of money. The vast majority of the men I was with inside were addicts who had already been punished by life way before their first stint in prison. Rehabs would be far less expensive and far more effective. But prevention is really the cure. Victor Hugo said: “If every time they built a prison, they built a school instead, there would be no need for prisons.” He was right. Germany has twice the population of California, yet a third as many prisoners, and a very low crime rate. There is absolutely no reason the richest country in the world should have a prison population larger than China’s.
That said, prison ended up working for me because of my highly specific history. Such a harsh punishment — because prison is harsh, no matter how you cut it — was exactly what I needed to understand deep in my bones that consequences were not just for other people. I had miraculously been among the 10% or so of men who survived after contracting HIV in the early 80s, and this had distorted my thinking profoundly. Prison slapped me back to a reality in which, most of the time, when A, B, and C happens, D follows.
Indeed it does. My prison record has knee-capped me professionally. This is too bad not just for me, but for society at large. I am a born teacher, and have a master’s degree. Because my charges involved drug trafficking, I cannot be licensed. (No private school would dare hire me.) This is a shame, as I could bring some very valuable experience to the very students most at risk to go down the same dark alleys as I did. No qualified individual who is willing to work in a difficult school should be turned away if the crime for which he was convicted was entirely non-violent.
But I really can’t blame anybody but myself. I had so many chances to get my act together and didn’t. In retrospect, the only explanation that makes sense is this: prison was as close to death as I could get without actually dying. And after almost two decades of living under an ax, I needed an ending. Because it turned out the suspense was killing me.
Mark Olmsted’s book about his experience in prison, “Ink from the Pen” is available on Amazon https://www.amazon.com/Ink-Pen-Prison-Mark-Olmsted/dp/0692784144/ and Barnes and Noble.
Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.