Drugs

'I Should Be Among the Dead': Young, White and Economically Advantaged, I Was Hungry for Meaning and Found Heroin Instead

By the time I was addicted, time itself became a failed construct.

Photo Credit: Evdokimov Maxim

My last shot was at my parents’ place in the suburbs of Chicago. That morning I was scheduled to board a plane to Minneapolis for a long stint of rehab. Naturally, I wanted to retain a long high, which is in fact part of the virus’ composition: Every next shot will be the forever rush; chasing the chimera. Though in the end, you end up chasing away everything, even yourself.

On that bright and humid May morning, like every other day, I awoke from a non-slumber. When you’re on heroin, contrary to the prevailing image of the lethargic nod, you don’t actually sleep. Heroin users merely simulate the activity of sleep through nods. Where one wakes up in the morning refreshed—moving seamlessly through the stages of sleep—someone with a habit will wake up in a cold and sweaty fog, shaky for a shot. After fixing comes not so much refreshment but a drawn sigh, a gentle slip back into that dreamless atmosphere. 

At this juncture, shooting heroin several times daily on and off for a few years, I was actively avoiding being awake. Consciousness, as I perceived it, was a great error. But I came to discover that humanity, even on heroin, is inescapable. I was still acutely conscious, no matter how much heroin I shot. I was wide-awake and everything hurt: my skin, my stomach, my sore arms, even my nose hairs.

By the time you’re 22 and forced to live at home, you shouldn’t have a room that you identify as your room. Any alleged room of yours ought to be stripped of what is essentially you. So I scurried from what was once my room into what was once my bathroom to open a literal junk drawer. The mark of me in these rooms was hidden from plain sight. Clear plastic baggie containing less than one half of a gram of greyish powder; needle, cooker, and cotton; belt strewed across white tiled floor, tiny droplets of blood left from the night before.

The moment following a morning shot you’re more or less a philosophical zombie: a wobbly, stumbling mass of bones barely qualified to be called conscious. The contents of the mind are only elementary needs: a cup of coffee, lots of cream and sugar; a cigarette, menthol. A combination, by the way, that marries so fucking good with an opiate rush. 

When I did that morning shot in my old bathroom, I did not honestly think it was going to be my last. But it was. That flight to Minneapolis two hours later turned into over three months living inside an in-patient treatment facility. It cost a college tuition, and deserves a story all its own. After that long stint I moved to St. Paul for an even longer saga of sober living residences. And by the age of 24 I moved back to Chicago to finish school in a city once home to my abject catastrophe of early 20-something-hood. This is what the trajectory of addiction treatment looks like when countless financial and social resources are thrown at it, treatment devastatingly out of reach for most.

*

In October 1991, six years before beat writer William Burroughs died, he said in his famous “Deposition,” “The junk virus is public health problem number one of the world today.” As a young man, Burroughs went abroad to study in Vienna to become a physician, but became distracted, the story goes. For what little medical training he received, his interest in heroin and addiction lay in the cold, hard physical. Personality and emotions, one’s existential situation, were of no interest to the failed doctor.

“Addiction is an illness of exposure,” Burroughs believed. “By and large those who have access to junk become addicts . . . There is no pre-addict personality any more than there is a pre-malarial personality, all the hogwash of psychiatry to the contrary.”

Contra Burroughs, I see not so much a virus present as I do a kind of Americanitis, à la William James’ neurasthenia. What I mean by this is, in America, there is a prevailing miasma, an irreducible, un-diagnosable discontent among the living. It deals in vanished meanings, subtly functioning beyond human volition. After all, no one willfully becomes existentially sickened to the point where it looks advantageous to blot out consciousness with constant heroin shots.

That’s the assumption, at least, when I look at the mortality figures from the CDC, which reveal death en masse from opiate toxicity. The death is far too vast to analyze at the micro, individual or neuronal level. There are over 600,000 heroin users alive in the United States. To say that we’ll rewire 600,000 brains is idiotic, not to mention impossible. So we’re led to believe this figure is climbing. The demographic data show the group responsible for the sharp uptick is 18- to 25-year-old, mostly white kids.

I’m left wondering why heroin is so alluring for the hegemonized, modern-day consumer subject. I want to attempt to get near this why, while also wondering if there is a why at all. I’m interested in this particular why mainly because I should be among those dead and quantified. During the summer of 2012, I kicked heroin at the age of 22. But saying I did the kicking would be inaccurate. Heroin did most of the kicking.

*

Experientially, Burroughs’ exposure theory (getting hooked because it’s there) rings true for me. At 17 I had unlimited access to a never-ending supply of 80 milligram OxyContin. One arbitrary day I recieved a phone call from a kid saying he has a bottle of 100 OCs, straight from the billionaire manufacturers, Purdue Pharma. They were stolen from a pharmacy with loose security. My few friends and I pooled our funds and bought all 100 for $2,500. We did this weekly for nearly a year. We would rip through the 100 pills each week. Our scheme was out of Capitalism 101: selling some pills for marked-up prices (up to $80 per pill) and snorting the rest for free. This enterprise came about prior to Purdue being juridically spindled into creating an abuse proof reformulation. From 2008 to 2012, it was heroin, only. The switch was effortless. After all, the two opiates are chemically twin sisters.

But there is something to my story beyond mere physical addiction, the getting hooked because it’s there. My idea as to what that might be has to do with time, mainly the future. When I snorted those first few milligrams at 17 I did not know I’d be taken for a five-year ride. I couldn’t have known. No one could have. When I did that last shot in my old bathroom, I couldn’t picture it being my last. Those who knew me couldn’t either.

The mind on heroin becomes shitty at doing what makes us essentially human. The heroin user operates on a four- to six-hour binary time table: fix or get sick. We cannot transcend too far into the future. Where there is no human, there is no time, said the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who penned his magnum opus called “Being and Time” in 1928. By the time I was physically addicted, time itself became a failed construct. Every tomorrow was always already today. Think Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day”: trapped in the eternal return. The future becomes unthinkable. But I believe the future, most of all seeing yourself in it, is the heroin user’s only way out. 

This analysis occurred to me when economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case published mortality statistics for middle-aged, working-class whites. They’re dying off in record numbers from liver damage (cirrhosis), overdose (opiates) and suicide. The two former causes are merely suicide in its slower, more painful manifestations. Dr. Deaton said that these dying middle-aged whites have “lost the narrative of their lives.”

So has the young white 18- to 25-year-old group who nod their supposed best days away on heroin. However, those of us who were born around 1990, never even had a narrative to lose. We’re an ahistorical, rootless bunch of consumptive silos. We’ve been taught we could buy the good life, that anything good is instantaneous. There is no quicker and consistent delivery mechanism for overcoming perpetual lack than heroin. Amazon’s got nothing on heroin.  Heroin for Burroughs and company was a work of art that resisted conformity. Now, heroin is consumptive conformity, pure capitalism. It means giving in, it means folding.

The vanished narrative analysis was best documented in Steven Okazaki’s newest documentary, Heroin: Cape Cod, USA. Okazaki and I both agreed that boredom and lack of opportunity plagued the eight participants, all of whom were middle-class, white 20-somethings. Two of the participants died before the film was even finished. The kids of so-called Cape Nod, their nickname for the place, had at that time no horizon with which to cast themselves off into. There was no arc of time or foreseeable future. There were no meaningful activities, outside the ritual of preparing heroin injections, which if I’m honest was the most attentive activity I engaged in for years. Like the Cape Nod kids, that’s how my five years on opiates looked: futureless. Simply replace “Cape Cod” with Chicago’s “North Shore.” Kids tying off with white iPhone wires.

Heroin addiction is a habit where one, multiple times throughout the day, injects a solipsism so strong that it traps the user inside a forever now—with nothing and no one beyond. There is even evidence of this in recent neuroimaging studies. Best explained by neuroscientist Marc Lewis, who calls the phenomenon now appeal. En route to heroin, or any compulsion, there are functional disconnections between the striatum (part of the reward system) and the prefrontal cortex, the most evolved area of the brain said to be responsible for complex cognition (e.g. our unique ability to imagine a future), cause what psychologists call delay discounting, or what Marc Lewis calls now appeal, or what I call being futureless.

This, I believe, is what makes heroin so appealing among the young white 20-somethings of today. It nullifies the future, because any foreseeable future looks grim. Whether financially, politically or climatologically, there is doom and gloom ahead. A Republican will win the election. The environment will putrefy. We’ll watch it all happen and comment on social media. The end of the world will be mediated through our screens. Like everything today, we won’t even experience it firsthand.

Psychologically, or perhaps existentially, the only thing I can see that sets me apart from any young person using heroin today, aside from the privilege to access proper treatment, is that I no longer feel the need to blot out the future. I don’t think it looks good, yet I continue to walk forward, straight into it.

In a Marxian way, I’ve become one with my activities. The bonds I have with them are meaningful to me. I do research, trying to empirically ground post-treatment sober living settings, to keep people out of the cycle of relapse, detox, treatment and jail. At baseline I want us all to be alive long enough to find something meaningful that we can hang on to.

I also write, of course, which makes me feel alive. Though I get cynical about headlines and the quantification of the click, I put my best work out and move on to the next one. I also have a girlfriend, Logan (who’s Swedish-German family claims they’re long lost descendants of Nietzsche), who I love and who loves me. I have a family, who I know loves me, who continue to give me compassion every day despite the five-year nightmare I put them through. I can be there with them today. The amount of meaning my activities, family and Logan provide are inversely proportional to the needle. Meaning is what I think we’ve collectively lost.

And we must keep people alive long enough to find it. That means we need supervised injection facilities, places for people to shoot up and be safe. That means we need naloxone, the chemical antidote to opiate overdose, available everywhere. That means we need heroin to lose the creeping across class lines narrative. That means heroin can no longer be a secret. That means we need to love those using it and let them hang on long enough to find these meanings. Meaning allows you to become your fate, to live a radically mortal life.

With meaning and a future, heroin loses its allure and life opens up.

 

Zachary Siegel is a regular contributor to The Fix. Follow him on Twitter.

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