5 Unexpected Things I Learned from Being a Heroin Addict
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.
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.
Movies Get the Scary Parts Wrong
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.
On the Subjects of Heroin, Getting Clean, and My Penis
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.
Presented without further comment.
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.
Methadone Can Be Worse Than Heroin
For the uninitiated, methadone is a cheap, legal alternative to heroin that can be prescribed to help wean users off the drug. But trading a heroin addiction for a methadone addiction isn't exactly the Black Friday deal people make it out to be, because methadone is actually the more addictive substance. While heroin withdrawal by itself can't kill you and has physical withdrawal symptoms lasting anywhere from three days to a few weeks, withdrawing from methadone absolutely can kill you, and has symptoms that can last several months. I wouldn't wish that shit on my worst enemy. Not even you, Llarold the hipster barista.
He's only addicted to thinking he's better than you.
Another problem is that methadone clinics aren't what you'd call "strict." They let you choose how to "taper off" yourself, and they're happy to keep selling you the drug as long as you want (there's a reason recovering junkies refer to methadone users as "lifers"). Then there are studies that have found that, in terms of cost to society and overall life-span of patients, a more effective strategy for getting clean is to just slowly taper off heroin use. It's probably worth noting at this point that, like methadone, heroin itself was first introduced as a safe, non-addictive cure for morphine addiction -- at least until they started marketing it to children as a cough medication.
Good for what ails you, if what ails you is not having a childhood addiction to heroin.
I'm not saying that companies intentionally give drugs to addicts to keep them addicted, or even that methadone is a bad thing -- it allows a lot of people to manage their addiction and lead something like a normal life, and I wouldn't take that away from anyone who wants it. But I am saying that trading one opioid for another shouldn't be your only choice, because it can easily end up being just another addiction. You know the stories about how some little island in the Pacific had a rat problem, so they flew in snakes -- then they had a snake problem? Same deal. Except this time the snakes are inside your veins.
Withdrawal Can Last the Rest of Your Life
I told you that heroin withdrawal lasts around three weeks at the most, and that's true, but this shit doesn't end at withdrawal: You can still end up with PAWS.
Do heroin and bears will murder you.
PAWS is a deceptively adorable acronym for post-acute withdrawal syndrome, and the symptoms are similar to PTSD: depression, insomnia, restlessness, feelings of guilt and shame, inability to think clearly, and, in my case, very vivid nightmares. In one, I have a bag of dope in my hand and I am looking for a place to shoot up, but every time I find one, I get interrupted. The dream always ends when I have a needle in my arm: I'm about to push off, and right before I can feel the effects, I wake up. PAWS is like my addiction taunting me, every night, and it can last anywhere from a year, to several decades, to forever. But even without PAWS, I know I'm never going back to the way I was before -- I'm "hooked" forever. Even if I don't use for 20 years, one slip-up means I'll get withdrawal symptoms almost immediately. This is why you will see recovering heroin addicts refuse pain medication at the hospital: They'd rather go through surgery without morphine than have to go back to that very first day they tried to kick.
No thanks. Appendicitis doesn't actually sound too bad.
These days, Sally and I are broken up (I dumped her when she rolled over on me in jail, and not in the fun way. Now she's in prison for something unrelated), and I've been clean for 11 months. But my problems aren't over, because the drug itself isn't the problem -- the addiction is. Remember, I was using heroin every day for weeks before I developed a physical dependency, so heroin was just my attempt to fix problems that were already in place. If you know someone who's using or has used, you should know that this isn't as simple as them making bad decisions. They're running from something that, to them, seems a whole lot scarier than a needle.
This article was written before the death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman and is dedicated to the memory of everything he did outside his illness. Ed Byrne is still taking it day by day and can be reached by email. JF Sargent is a dick-joke journalist at Cracked.
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