Growing up, my understanding of heroin was limited to "If you use it once, you're screwed" and "Don't let the girl from She's All That borrow your cast iron pan." Well, I was hooked on one of the most addictive drugs in the world for over a year before I was arrested and forced to get clean in jail, and along the way I learned that this kind of habit is nothing like what we've been told.
#5. Addiction Isn't Instant (And That Makes It Worse)
By far the biggest rumor surrounding heroin is that it's an instant addiction -- you take one hit, and you're hooked. Just check out this scene from Breaking Bad:
Jesse asks what it'll feel like, telling us that it's his first journey into the wonderful world of opioids. To be blunt, I have literally never met anyone who was introduced to heroin with a needle. That's roughly the equivalent of taking your first drink of alcohol by butt-chugging moonshine out of a gas can. The reality is a lot less abrupt, and a lot scarier: Most people start by popping and smoking pills. In that stage, it never seems like a problem, because you can use daily for weeks with no withdrawal effects whatsoever. I got totally wasted with my girlfriend Sally* every night and woke up every morning clear as a bell, so it was super easy to think "Hey, why not use again?" I never had cravings, so it didn't feel like a real problem -- but somewhere in that process, a switch got flipped.
*Not her real name, obviously. What is this, Leave It to Beaver?
If it had gone on one more season ...
One day I woke up with what felt like a flu, and it wasn't until I got some more dope to "help my flu" that I realized I was "junk sick" -- the term users have for the early stages of withdrawal. It was after that -- after I was addicted -- that I turned to the needle. Once you're at the stage where you're even considering the needle, you long ago forgot about "squeamishness" right along with "work" and "everything else you ever wanted to accomplish in your life."
You have no trouble remembering where your spoons are, though.
The really bad part of heroin isn't the physical dependency -- it's the addiction, and there's a difference. Telling people heroin will get them "instantly addicted" is a fine scare tactic, but it disguises the real danger. I was using heroin daily not because I had jumped off the swings and accidentally touched a needle discarded on a playground, thus allowing the addiction-gremlins inside my brain, but because my firsthand experience with the drug told me that it was a risk-free way to escape from my problems. So when I realized I needed to kick, that meant facing not only the physical agony of withdrawal, but all the demons I had been running from in the first place. And I don't know if you've ever seen one run in the wild, but demons are fast.
#4. Movies Get the Scary Parts Wrong
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Remember that scene in Requiem for a Dream when Jared Leto's arm gets infected and his friend acts like it's the craziest thing he's ever seen? That scene is ridiculous not because it's overhyped and chock-full of Leto-bangs, but because that shit happens all the time. When Sally got an abscess, we drained it with a hot compress and a disinfected razor blade, and that was it -- no hospital, no surgery, no nothing. It's so commonplace, it's practically boring.
In lieu of any pictures of rotting abscesses, have these kittens.
A piddling little bit of blackened limb rot would be downright pleasant next to the looming threat of an accidental overdose. In a perfect world where no one ever makes mistakes, the difference between a good shot and a lethal dose would be about $10 -- but we don't live in a perfect world, so we have to deal with purity issues. Since there's not exactly an FDA for hard drugs, heroin purity is less closely monitored than, say, orange juice pulp levels. One person can have dope that is 80 percent pure, while his roommate can be getting high on stuff closer 10 percent, and there's virtually no way of visually distinguishing between the two. What happens over and over again is someone used to the lower-end stuff gets some "fire" dope from his dealer. Even if he's careful and does a tiny shot to test it out, it could still end up being like four of his normal shots. That's like picking up your latte at Starbucks, only when you go to take a sip, it turns out your coffee is made of shotgun blast and your head gets splattered all over the ceiling. Then Llarold, the hipster barista, is all "Psh, casuals."
Llarold's a damned enigma, but he makes the third best latte in town.
This is why heroin in particular is responsible for such a large portion of all drug overdoses. In the short time I was using, I knew four people who overdosed that exact way. Some users have clarified that you don't die of an overdose of heroin -- you die "from heroin." Again, in an effort to make the drug seem scarier, we've distracted from the far worse reality: Heroin isn't dangerous because you might get an infection. Heroin is dangerous because at best you're not just at Death's door -- you're in Death's living room having a Mario Kart tournament at 2 a.m. and hoping he doesn't wake up, but you're not paying very close attention to the volume, because you're high on heroin.
I got clean from almost sheer luck, and that process is where things got even weirder.
#3. On the Subjects of Heroin, Getting Clean, and My Penis
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As I mentioned, my addiction finally came to an end when I was arrested. Sally and I had been couch surfing as hidden homeless for months and shoplifting electronics to pay for food and drugs. We were finally busted while stealing dinner: lamb chops with a side of organic sweet potato and asparagus (hey, a heroin addiction is no excuse for barbarism, plus it's amazing what you can afford when you're stealing it). So I went to jail, and I discovered that a big part of heroin withdrawal involved my penis.
And that's not just because my penis makes up 34 percent of my body mass.
To explain that, let me back up a bit ...
One of the key effects of heroin is a dulling of the senses: Smell is just gone, sounds get muffled, and since your body is numb, you can lose the ability to orgasm. Rather than a downside, this ended up becoming a bonus, because if you can't come, you can just fuck for hours. That was one of our favorite things to do, actually: We'd get high and bone for as long as we felt like. And since both our bodies were mostly numb, things got ... pretty weird. Comic book weird. Japanese comic book weird.
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Then, in withdrawal, the exact opposite happened. I was sitting there in my jail cell in the throes of all the worst parts of heroin withdrawal (sweats, chills, vomiting, being in friggin' jail) when all my senses came flooding back like a hyperactive toddler waking up from a forced nap. And they even brought a friend: the supernatural ability to orgasm at the slightest stimulation.
Wake up? Orgasm!
Car backfires? Fright orgasm!
Accidentally brush it with a scratchy jailhouse blanket? What a lovely orgasm!
Shake it off after you pee into an industrial toilet? Bam, orgasm!
This stopped being pleasurable pretty much instantly -- sharing living space with a guy named "Tito the Butcher" isn't the most erotic of all possible atmospheres -- but that didn't matter. I could shoot off three in 30 seconds whether I wanted to or not, and this sensitivity stayed with me for weeks.