Trigger warning for fairly obvious reasons. This was written primarily for the purpose of catharsis. Please take this warning seriously if you’ve struggled with addiction, especially opiates, and aren’t fully confident in your ability to handle evocative descriptions of such experiences, or if you’ve had traumatic experiences related to a loved one who was or is dealing with addiction. This is not meant to “glorify” heroin addiction, but is intended as an honest and personal account of certain aspects of its pathology, as I experienced it. “Down” is the common slang for heroin in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
There’s a reason that generally, people refer to themselves as “recovering addicts”. Not recovered addicts. Not ex-addicts. Recovering.
Initially I kind of resented this, and I wasn’t the only one, thinking of it as mostly being a construct and a bit of a con set up by twelve step organizations, as part of the overall cult-mentality with which they’re run. It would keep the addict’s identity perpetually inseparable from the addiction (“Hi, my name is Natalie, and I am an addict”), hamstring their ability to move on with their lives, and keep them emotionally dependent on the groups and meetings. But in that initial distrust of the language, I was leaning into an assumption that there was some sort of “post-addiction” state, a place you could arrive at where you had in some real sense “moved on with your life” such that it no longer was in any meaningful way an aspect of yourself.
I’ve since learned that that assumption was a mistake, and at least for many people, no matter the distance you place between yourself and the addiction, it never stops being meaningful, or stops demanding attention. Once it’s there, it’s there, and you don’t get to forget.
At least for me.
While things do change, progress can be made, lives can get better, I’ve never quite been able to escape the memory of it as an option. That’s why I’m always recovering, never recovered, and why I’ll never be able to really put it behind me or have it cease to be an element of who I am. Somewhere in the back of my head, I know that it’s never really going to be all that hard for to scrounge a bit of cash together, catch a train down to East Hastings and score. I’m never much more than one hour away from being able to put a rig in my arm, and let everything be okay. And during very difficult and painful times, that stops being in the back of my mind, and starts being in the front. I always have that option. It’s always a possibility. I can never go back to considering it unthinkable, or back to ignorance of just how easy it really is.
I have usually kept a single use collection of sterile equipment hidden somewhere in my room as a sort of symbolic actualization of that. I find it very hard to let go of. It’s not clinging to the addiction, but recognizing it. Coping with the fact that it’s always there, and always will be.
For me, I’ve always found that’s probably the part perhaps that most singularly sets me, as an addict, apart from other people, that feels like this private way in which I’ll always be on some level a junkie. Which is to say, the fact that once that becomes a part of your history, of your experiences, it stays with you as a part of who you are through that remembering of your past, that inability to really forget, and its presence as a perpetually possible future. Not only do you always remember that it’s out there as a possibility, but you also always remember what it feels like, what it can offer. And sad as it may be, there’s always a certain piece of oneself that misses it. Or perhaps that there’s always a certain piece of yourself now missing.
To paraphrase Burroughs, I think, one’s first hit is like a velvet glove caressing every nerve of your body. And then you spend the rest of your life trying or wanting to feel that sensation again.
There’s a part of that that seems to ring true to me, but other aspects don’t. I remember that one early, perfect high I had, though it was from vicodin, years before I began using heroin, and in a sense almost every hit I’d had was in some way hoping to recreate that particular experience, that feeling of absolute peace, pleasure, calm and beauty, but it seemed that at a certain point I’d accepted that that was impossible, that was pursuing something that can only be grasped for brief, fleeting moments, at best (such as in the initial burst of pleasure when the diamorphine completes the second-long journey to from your arm to your head and crosses the blood brain barrier) and what I was pursuing was something different. And what I miss, the part that makes it so difficult to ever really let go, that makes it such that this will always be an aspect of my life and myself that I have to cope with, is something else entirely. Contrary to even what I myself expect my feelings to be, it isn’t the pleasure or the sensation that I miss.
When I first started using was a very low, very difficult period of my life where I felt almost entirely defeated, like everything in my life that had ever been going right or had suggested a future had come undone. I had a friend who had begun using, a friend from whom I used to often buy opiate painkillers, and to be entirely honest, I walked into it with my eyes entirely open. I knew exactly what I was doing, I knew exactly what I was risking, and I knew exactly what the few possible outcomes were. But the truth was that I had given up, I didn’t care, it was a lot less scary than simply killing myself outright, and it offered the potential for some very lovely nights in the meantime.
It was, more than anything else, a symbolic gesture. A way of letting go. I genuinely didn’t believe I had a life worth continuing to live, but was terrified of the prospect of suicide, so I took the middle option. It absolutely gave me the letting go that I wanted, the way out of having to be worried about the question of where I was going or what I was feeling or who I was or any of that, and of course it eased my dysphoria (interestingly, heroin acts directly on the part of the brain responsible for the regulation of sexual hormones and related responses… this is why it can have such an inhibiting affect on libido… so I’ve sometimes wondered whether part of why I was so much more drawn to it, and comforted by it, than other drugs was because it was actually directing soothing the part of my brain that my dypshoria comes from). However, heroin addiction produces its own rhythms of survival.
But the part that became most meaningful about it was how simple the rhythms became. In the depths of heroin addiction, I only ever had to be really concerned with exactly one problem, and for that or anything else at all there was only ever exactly one solution. For most of us, our lives are cluttered with worries and concerns and anxieties and responsibilities and desires and needs and hopes and dreams and identities. We have bills to pay, jobs to go to, alarms to set, dishes to wash, body parts to shave, netflix subscriptions to renew, dentist appointments to make, flights to catch, blogs to write, family to call, medication to take, friends to meet up with, rent to pay, dates to go on, sex lives to keep interesting, correspondence to keep, library books to return, weddings to attend, and so on and so on and so on. That’s what human lives are generally made out of. But in heroin, all of that, all of those things that terrified me and filled me with anxiety and that I had such a hard time investing with a sense of meaning, all of it could fade to nothing but a more or less dismissable, nagging whisper in the background. I could make every worry, the fear of making rent, the loneliness, the lack of direction, the implosion of my life, the shame and self hatred, the gender dysphoria, everything… I could reduce it all down to one single tiny little point, pierce it through my skin, thread into my femoral vein, and let it wash away through my blood in a lovely wave of everything-is-fine-now.
This is where that exploitative creep Lou Reed not-so-helpfully chimes in with “until tomorrow but that’s just some other time”.
The funny thing? Despite the manner in which addiction causes one’s “life to be out of control and unmanageable” (to paraphrase NA), in a strange way, that surrender of life’s numerous problems and concerns to a single, overriding need was actually a way to assert control. It may have been a pretty sad, lonely, broken kind of life, but at least I was the one choosing it. I didn’t have to feel like I was getting chaotically tossed around by forces I had no say in. Instead I was getting chaotically tossed around by forces I willingly submitted to.
It’s not that I had illusions, or that it granted any sense of my life being any better off than it actually was. In fact, it was nearly impossible to avoid seeing and knowing what I was doing to myself… somewhat comically during the first year and a half where I lived in Washington State and was using black tar. For those who don’t know, black tar is a dark-mollasses-coloured, sticky, gooey, semi-solid with an incredibly powerful acidic, chemical odor. It looks, feels and smells exactly like what one would imagine pure, concentrated evil or death to look, feel and smell like. And I put it directly into my veins… and in that early year, often with used, blunted and even shared rigs.
I knew what I was doing, I just didn’t care. It offered comfort at a time where it felt like I couldn’t find any real meaning or satisfaction or fulfillment anywhere else, and more so allowed everything the simplicity of being oriented only around this one issue. There was the palpable sense that I was basically dying, just waiting to eventually overdose or contract HIV, but again, I didn’t care. I didn’t really want to live, given what living seemed to entail, and in the meantime the addiction was the best kind of survival I could maintain. Until eventually I couldn’t. Which would be fine.
Much more than the actual sensations of pleasure the drug provides, it was the entire mentality, that simple ebb and flow of perfect contentment and driving, single-minded need, that is the part that haunts me and remains a part of me… …how all it would take is that initial act of letting go and the entropic pull of the addiction would take care of the rest. It’s how incredibly easy it would be that constantly terrifies me and makes it hard to fight against.
Lately, I no longer really have cravings, per se. That’s not a problem. What the fight is really about is fighting against indifference. One of the most dangerous questions an addict can ask herself is “why not?”. I no longer have any strong desire to use. There’s no reason to, really. There’s nothing it would offer, exactly, other than that calm, reliable, simplicity I was describing. But: why not? Do I have any reasons not to? What exactly am I sticking with chaotic, uncontrollable, unchosen, multifaceted, confusing, heartbreaking life for?
It’s a lot easier to fight against a desire than to fight against not really caring one way or the other. In the former, you can use fear to help you out. Or you can weigh it against other desires. Or you can even ask “why not stop”? You can use things like that to kick. You can’t use them to stay clean. For the latter you can’t just be opting against use, you have to be opting in to not using. If that makes any sense.
Addiction gets described all the time as an internal emptiness that people seek to fill. I’ve always been a bit iffy on that particular metaphor. Likewise, there are numerous theories all about the object of addiction serving as a stand-in or replacement for something that’s lacking somewhere: family, love, psycho-social integration, stability, endorphins, dopamine, self-worth, etc. And sometimes it’s described as self-medicating. All of those end up proposing seemingly simplistic “solutions” to it… to fill the emptiness with something else, like God or family or love or whatever. To work on actually finding the thing you were attempting to replace. To affectively treat or at least manage whatever pain you were attempting to medicate. Etc. There can be a lot of truth in all those theories, and everyone is different, everyone has their own struggle. But none of it, for me, ever felt like a reflection of the whole truth. Just individual facets.
And none of them ever seemed to really address those questions of meaning, simplicity, choice, letting go and control.
Sometimes, it seems like addiction is just a little synecdoche of all the basic questions of life, and that’s what makes it something impossible to ever be really “recovered” from. How could I ever recover from being human; from being confused, and scared, and lonely, and overwhelmed, and sad, and homesick, and heartsick, and lost, everything else? Would I ever even want to “recover”? Yet, because I once took that option, that option stays on, as a perpetually available answer to every single hard, scary and painful question that being a human being can pose. The “one” answer. Asking myself to opt in to sobriety, choosing that kind of chaotic scary messy little life instead of the simplified scary messy little life of addiction, is in a sense asking myself to opt in to absolutely everything that’s hard, scary and painful about being human. It’s opting in to the human condition. Which, when you think about it, is a pretty terrifying thing. But on the other hand: