Editor’s note: Mark Sullivan is writing under a pseudonym to protect his safety as he builds a life free from crime and addiction.
The first time I saw AMC’s Breaking Bad was about two years ago. I felt like I was watching a reel of my own life—or at least my past—and I finished the entire season in one sitting.
By then I had already moved east; far away from my life in Arizona, where I learned to fight and steal cars; far away from the state prisons, where I spent most of my 20s and 30s; far away from the desert, where I passed the time cooking meth until it nearly killed me between stints behind bars.
I first decided that I wanted to cook meth more than 20 years ago, while I was still locked up. I was an addict back then—meth, heroin, cocaine—you name it, I was hooked. Getting drugs in prison was easy. I was a high-ranking member of the Aryan Brotherhood—the notorious prison gang—which I joined not out of hate, but for drugs and protection. I’ve been out of prison now for 13 years, and joining the white-supremacist gang is something I’ll always regret. But it was my years as a meth cook that I regret the most.
I don’t think I realized the depth of my remorse until I first watched Breaking Bad. It was the most disturbing show I’d ever seen. Sitting in my living room, watching the first episode, I felt the most bizarre sense of shock and sadness. I’d periodically take breaks and call my sister Patty, who was the person who put me onto it. “It’s like they used us as consultants,” she said. And it was true.
Patty desperately wanted us to see the show together. But because I was in the witness-protection program, we were forced to spend our lives apart. She was a tough chick, and she basically taught me everything I know, including every facet of my life in crime, except cooking meth—that was something that I unfortunately taught her.
The first time I broke bad was 15 years ago in Arizona. I had just been released from my third stint in prison, and my gang ties offered me protection and a connection to large criminal network. I was a real-life version of Breaking Bad’s Walt and Jesse, only much worse.
It’s not good to be addicted to meth, especially if you’re the cook. The stuff I used was pure; meth is lethal and the supply was never-ending. This was my world for more than two years. I thought of little else but when I could cook the next batch, and when it would be ready so I could shoot, smoke, and sell all the dope I wanted.
I learned to cook from a guy named California Sack. He had worked for the Hells Angels, and was one of the best outlaw chemists on the West Coast. To get that good, you have to have some scars, and Sack did. Once, he was cooking in the back of a moving van and the lab exploded. As a result, half of Sack’s body was burned, and he wore his skin grafts as a badge of honor.
Just like Walt and Jesse, Sack and I had the best shit in town and everybody wanted it. The profit was unbelievable. I made pure meth for 25 cents a gram and then sold a gram at 50 percent purity for $100. That’s a $200 profit on a 25-cent investment, and that’s just for a gram, which is roughly the weight of a $1 bill. I was cooking in large containers, which held about three to five pounds of product every month. My crew and I were making $4 million a year.
With all that money, I bought everything I had ever wanted, and some things I didn’t. I bought boats and Corvettes. I rented a huge mansion, where my whole crew lived and partied. I felt like Tony Montana in Scarface, a leader among dealers, thugs, and cronies. I thought I had finally made it to the top of the criminal world.
But I was wrong. I needed to have all these people close to me because the drugs led to unbelievable paranoia. I needed to know where everyone was and what they were saying at all times. I was constantly consumed by suspicion. I repeatedly saw and heard things that weren’t real.
At one point, I became convinced that one of my dealers—a friend of 10 years—was trying to kill me. One rainy night, I heard his car pull up to my house, so I quickly grabbed my pistol, loaded it with six rounds and went into the backyard. “Let’s search the house and find him,” I heard someone say. Panicked, I sprinted down the alley. I could hear their footsteps behind me. My lungs burned. I broke into a random house down the street. I ran into the laundry room and shut the door behind me and hid. My gun was cocked. I was waiting for them to come.
The family who lived there wasn’t home; they were at a neighbor’s. But it was raining that day, so when they got home hours later, the resident and her son noticed my wet footprints going into the laundry room. The mom opened the closet door, and I jumped up with the gun thinking it was my friend. My hand was on the trigger. I nearly shot her in the face, but she screamed and the sound held me back. I told her that someone was trying to kill me, but she just kept screaming and screaming, so I ran out of the house.
I was still worried that my friend was following me, so I hid behind a bush down the street, sweating and clutching my gun. A short while later I saw my girlfriend drive by slowly in my truck. I jumped out of the bushes, ran into the street, and climbed in back, screaming, “Go! Go! Go!" She hit the brakes and started crying. She had seen me run out into the yard with the gun, and had been driving around all night looking for me.
She told me no one ever came to the house. I had imagined it all.
Then there was a time I was held up for five days in the desert, living in a trailer and cooking meth. Sack and I were high the entire time; we didn’t wear protective gear, and the drug had seeped into every pore in our bodies. Day by day, we started losing our minds. I became convinced that the feds were watching us. We saw people, cars, and airplanes that didn’t exist. At some point, we became unable to speak to one another—that’s how deep the paranoia ran. Every bush had someone lurking behind it.
Though Walt on Breaking Bad isn’t an addict, in the beginning of the series, there’s a scene in which he’s standing in the middle of the road in the desert with a gun in his mouth, wearing nothing but his underwear. He’s ready to kill himself out of fear. That’s how I felt whenever I cooked. And yet I kept doing it. For a year and a half, I manufactured, sold, and abused this powerful drug.
After the fifth day, we broke down the lab, left the trailer in the desert, and loaded everything into a separate car to begin the 40-mile trek back to Phoenix. I held my gun the entire time. As we made our way over the dusty, deserted roads, my cooking partner and I agreed that if we got pulled over, we would hold court in the streets. We were willing to shoot any cop in our path and die in the process. Anything was better than going back to prison. Had we been pulled over, I know I would either be dead or on death row right now.
I have witnessed so many people destroyed by meth—everyday moms and dads who ended up in prison, their kids sent to foster homes. In months, their mouths would disintegrate, become plagued by disease; their teeth would start to rot and fall out. Everything that meth touches soon decays, and I know from experience.
Ten years ago, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease as a direct result of cooking meth. But my own suffering pales in comparison to that of my sister. Years of cooking and using eventually took its toll on Patty. She died from a mixture of cancer, hepatitis, and diabetes in 2010. As her health declined, we talked about what we could expect from the second season of Breaking Bad. We knew we couldn’t watch it in the same room, but in a way, we were always watching together.
Patty never made it to season two. I watched it alone in my apartment, thinking about all the time I missed seeing her either because of prison or because of witness protection. And that’s what’s missing in Breaking Bad. For all its brilliance and realism, the show seems to gloss over the fact that what really breaks as a result of meth dealing are the hearts and lives of users like me. Like Patty.