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"As Needed For Pain" by Dan Peres - Book Review

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You get invited to Milan for Fashion Week and you sit front row as the new Spring lines from Versace and Armani debut on the runway before you. Dan Peres is holed up in a suite at the Four Seasons disappearing into an opiate fog. You score a ticket to the Council of Fashion Designers of America awards gala - the CFDA if you’re in the know (you’re in the know) - and you get seated at the same table as Calvin Klein and Kate Moss. Dan Peres is in the bathroom trying to convince Tom Ford that the pill he just walked in on him popping was a Tylenol instead of Peres’ thirteenth Vicodin of the day. You’re in the office at 1 pm on a Thursday, because why wouldn’t you be? Dan Peres is on his living room floor, stoned, his life falling apart around him.

As Needed for Pain is the new memoir from Dan Peres, the former editor in chief of Details, that documents everything from the author’s early years growing up in an affluent Baltimore suburb to his Rx-riddled days in fashion journalism. By the time his habit reaches its peak, Peres is taking in excess of 60 Vicodin a day, handfuls of fifteen at a time, and still managing to quasi-steer the Details ship. It’s a first-hand account of how success and stability rarely exist in equal measure and how alluring the escape of a magic pill can be – a story we need to hear, especially today.

Magic and the longing for escape appear early in the fabric of the Peres’ life. He would spend hours on his own, practicing card tricks and coin vanishes in his parents’ basement, idolizing David Copperfield as the antithesis of the lacrosse-bro archetype that populated the landscape of late-Eighties suburban Maryland. “Even then I felt like there was a handbook that explained all the rules for boys and girls, men and women, and that everyone had been given one except me,” he writes. Peres grew up surrounded by the kind of alpha male stereotypes from which he couldn’t feel farther removed.

He presents himself as a young man more at ease with tricking and manipulating the world around him than in interacting with it. “Magic was the perfect escape from reality,” he notes, telling us that it, “gave people a reason to look at me without actually looking at me.” Feeling isolated and misunderstood is as time-honored an adolescent rite of passage as asking to be dropped off around the block or slow dancing at arm’s length, but Peres never seems to fully shed the weight of it. He carries it with him into adulthood.

At twenty-four, and in a rare and misguided instance of actually trying to get someone to look at him - a girl no less - Peres knocks over the first domino (or the last) in the row that would eventually lead to addiction. One botched cartwheel, a ruptured disc, and a back surgery later, and Vicodin is placed in the author’s hands for the first time. Its effects wash over him with, “an unfamiliar level of comfort and calm,” and he describes it as, “the same high I imagined my brother experienced when he scored the winning goal in a lacrosse game or that Adam felt when he had a threesome his junior year in college.” Peres is quick to substitute the high of opiates for what he believes he missed out on as a teenage magic nerd. He soon finds that he no longer needs to find his place in the world, not when it’s so much easier to just make the world disappear altogether.

By the time he breaks into the world of fashion journalism and eventually heads Details, Peres has perfected his most impressive vanishing act yet: his own. With the newfound stress of running a major magazine heaped on top of an already powerful aversion to being in the public eye, he graduates to stronger painkillers and takes to sequestering himself from the bright lights and red carpets in luxe hotel rooms where he’s free to wallow in pharmaceutical oblivion. Throughout the book, we’re treated to the requisite name drops and label mentions, but the glitz and glamor of haute couture serve mostly as a backdrop for the real story of Peres’ addiction – which awards shows he ducked out of at the first sign of withdrawal, which aging rock star he snorted Oxy with (we never find out, but I have my suspicions)…

But to read As Needed for Pain as another exposé on the excess in fashion media would be to miss the forest for the bespoke, double-breasted, trees. Peres captures exactly what is at stake when he describes the moment he decides he’s going to cross the line from pills to heroin:

After all, heroin was a drug. A real drug. A dirty drug. A druggie’s drug. Pills were clean. Prescribed and dispensed by learned men and women in white lab coats with framed degrees hanging over their desks. Pills came in tamper-proof bottles and had warning labels. Labels I completely disregarded, but still. They seemed safe. Kids from Pikesville didn’t do heroin. Kids from Pikesville went to summer camp. Kids from Pikesville knew the difference between lox and nova. They played tennis at the club. They married other kids from Pikesville and made their own kids from Pikesville

In this moment, the author refutes the myth that “good kids” don’t get hooked on drugs. Peres is proof that addiction doesn’t recognize neighborhoods. It doesn’t stop on that side of the street because we don’t have addiction problems in this zip code. He never does end up trying heroin, but the fact that we see him standing there, at the edge, once a “good kid” from Pikesville himself, goes to show that his story is not unique. Perhaps the only thing unique about it is the scale of his success. Other than that, though, he has a bad back, a stressful job and he doesn’t always feel comfortable in his own skin. Just this week I had a deadline that felt too close, I fantasize more about canceling plans than making them, and I’ve already gotten up twice just to stretch since I started writing this. We see ourselves in Dan Peres.

When his doctor prescribes painkillers for his ailing back, Peres closes the chapter taking the pills as directed, “one to two tablets every four hours, as needed for pain.” By the time we turn the page, however, he’s already begun abusing his meds. At some point in the space between two chapters, opiates have taken a hold of him. It’s frustrating, initially, to make that jump. You want an explanation. You want to see the moment he gets hooked, to see where he goes astray. But looking back, that’s exactly the point - there is no precise moment, no tipping point. Peres most likely never looked in the mirror, self-aware, and declared, “I’m going to use drugs now.” He was handed a bottle of pills designed to make him feel better, and that’s exactly what they did - brutally well.

As Needed for Pain dresses one of the most dire warnings of our time in merino wool and Italian leather and lets us know that the circumstances that existed for Dan Peres to start taking 60 Vicodin a day are ubiquitous. They exist in all of our lives to one degree or another, and we can’t chase them with a magic pill. We also can’t be so naïve as to believe that it can’t possibly happen on our side of the street. Weren’t we “good kids” too?

As Needed for Pain - A Memoir of Addiction by Dan Peres, published by Harper Collins.