Words from drugs

03Aug10

By Joe O’Sullivan
Public Opinion Staff Writer

According to his memoir, one day in 1995 Brian Kannas mistook bird feces on a porch for a quarter-gram of methamphetamine. He cooked it up in a spoon. A friend told him what it was, but high as a kite, Kannas kept at it.
Looking back with an arguably clearer head, he believes his friend had a point. He did, in fact, ingest bird dung while trying to get high.

This, the life of a Watertown addict.

Kannas, 33, has roamed the local streets for years. In his self-published memoir “The Scars to Prove It,” he describes his struggles with narcotics, women and, inevitably, the law. Available through RoseDog Books of Pittsburgh, Pa., the memoir reads like a nightmare of a tormented soul.
Like literary influence Aldous Huxley, who dwelled on “stuff that dealt with psyche and the elements of the brain where you escape,” Kannas dove into a world of narcotics.

But while the mid-20th century author of classics like “Brave New World” and “The Doors of Perception” used drugs as an avenue to explore new realities, Kannas went in the opposite direction.

“I was doing it to escape reality and it simply led to abuse,” he said.

Abuse, combined with Kannas’ struggle with mental illness, have landed him in rehabilitation, a psychiatric ward and jail. Each of those pieces are stitched together in “Scars” with diary entries, stories and poetry. In fact, the memoir’s first chapter is titled “The Codington County Jail, May 2007.”

But Kannas worries the book, released earlier this year, will draw criticism from those who think it glorifies extreme living — that’s the impression left with some who read an early draft.

“At that time I thought I was having fun,” Kannas said of his experiences in his teens and 20s.

“I realized in the end, consequently, I was actually destroying my brain and my body, but especially my brain,” said Kannas, who still drinks but said he no longer does drugs.

Kannas is drinking when he meets a reporter on a Thursday afternoon in July. He orders a beer from the bar where the interview takes place. After a bartender tells him the beer, called Skinny Dip, is unavailable, Kannas settles for something else.

“No skinny dipping, we’ll have to stay dry today. Let me taste that Stella Artois,” he says. “We’re doing a meeting on drug and alcohol addiction, for the Public Opinion.”
Kannas’ drug-free-but-still-drinking lifestyle is not uncommon for substance abusers, according to Dr. Chuck Sherman.

“But it’s not probably the wisest thing to be doing,” said Sherman, president and chief executive officer of the Human Service Agency in Watertown. “Because it’s very easy to substitute one addiction for another.”
And those addictions can hinder recovery from mental illnesses.

“If you’re struggling with an addiction problem, and you’re significantly depressed as well, you need to be on an anti-depressant to treat the depression,” he said.

“Otherwise the depression may interfere with your ability to recover from the addiction.”

Kannas said he takes prescription medication for bipolar disorder and mild schizophrenia, what Sherman calls co-occurring.

“People commonly have more than one affliction or disease or disorder at a time,” Sherman said.

Nationally, about 30 to 40 percent of people with a mental illness also have a chemical dependency problem, he said. Of people who have a chemical dependency problem, as many as 50 percent may have a mental illness, Sherman said.

“They co-exist, and one does not cause the other,” he said.
It was a March 2009 near-death brush with a fentanyl patch, a prescription pain killer, that spurred Kannas’ current narcotics-free life. Fentanyl, 100 times stronger than morphine, is designed in the patch to release over a period of time.

“I cut a slit in the patch, sucked the juice all out, then lit a cigarette,” Kannas said. “I didn’t get my cigarette halfway down, then I was on my back.”

Kannas said the paramedics afterward told him he had briefly died.

Like two previous drunken driving convictions and a slew of minor offenses, including multiple underage drinking citations, his overdose brought discipline from the judicial system. In February, Kannas pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance, according to court documents. He landed 15 days in jail and 13 months probation.

Today, stories and alcohol pass each other on his tongue — one goes up and out, the other down the hatch. Sipping his Stella, Kannas talks about how he grew up reading, his dislike for authority and his ex-girlfriends.

Stories and alcohol — along with the long hair and beard, of course — are precisely how Ashley Coleman recognizes Kannas. Coleman, a bartender at Duffy’s in Uptown, said Kannas occasionally drops in and shares some friendly banter.

“He’s a really easy guy to talk to,” said Coleman, 22. “His stories are interesting.”

Coleman listens to the tales of his life while she prepares Kannas’ preferred concoction: vodka and tonic with lime.

“Or shots,” she added. “He takes shots.”

“Scars” was collected piece-by-piece over a year starting in mid-2006. Kannas carried a pocket notebook everywhere, jotting down memories of drug or alcohol abuse. By mid-2007, he had gathered his material. Then, in 2008, came the drudgery of assembling the manuscript: organizing notes in sequential order, typing a draft, revising. Kannas said he paid his sister about $400 to go through the book and smooth it out.

Kannas hopes his journey as an author has only begun. He’s currently writing his first novel — so far titled “Snap” — and he’s already plotting his memoir’s sequel, “Fresh Cuts: The Scars to Prove It II.”

But “The Scars to Prove It” has been a journey on it’s own.
“This is a book about a person who’s somewhat still struggling,” said Kannas. “I struggle, I’m still struggling.”
In that vein, the final page of “Scars” ends with its own twist.

“At the end, I didn’t put a period,” said Kannas. “I put a comma.”

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