The Hidden Story of Middle-Class Heroin in Brooklyn and Beyond
On June 21, 2014, police discovered the bodies of a young couple in the burned ruins of a house in Midwest City, Oklahoma. The deceased were identified as Shelby Hughes, 33, and her fiance, Bryan VanAssche. The deaths were immediately determined to be suspicious.
The tragedy has cast light on a seemingly unrelated, but important story about New York, addiction and the digital age. The death of Shelby Hughes finally gave a name and a face to her rather prominent alter ego. During the last years of her life Hughes had battled heroin addiction and under the nom de guerre Dequincey Jynxie founded Jynxie's Natural Habitat, a peer-reviewed site for heroin users. The blog has outlived its creator and is still updated frequently with photos of various stamps on heroin baggies, accompanied by corresponding product reviews. Run for junkies by junkies, JNH is considered a reliable resource in the secret world of New York's heroin underground.
Heroin is still treated with a certain mystique. To outsiders the drug is known for being poetic and deadly, associated with harrowing withdrawal symptoms and artists from Miles Davis to Kurt Cobain. Heroin was once the scourge of disaffected neighborhoods like 1970s Harlem and has since moved rapidly into suburbia and the mainstream. In decades of targeting addicts and harassing harm reduction volunteers, law enforcement hasn’t made a dent in the epidemic. The resounding success of the war on drugs can be summed up by a simple phrase: higher potency, lower price.
Purity levels have dramatically increased and prices remain cheap. If one looks carefully, the traces are all over Brooklyn’s trendy neighborhoods: white wax paper rectangles and orange needle caps. Medical science and rehabilitation have made enormous advancements, but the way the law deals with heroin addiction has not. The increasing number of white deaths from heroin has gotten the attention of the national press, but for now, heroin addiction retains a secretive subculture. Shelby Hughes was one of its few celebrities.
During her short life, Hughes was something of a junkie It Girl, a secret spokeswoman for heroin users. She was interviewed by various publications and was widely known by her moniker in Brooklyn's persistent junkie-chic culture. For the most part, media treated her as a curiosity, but sometimes she was treated with the respect she deserved. In line with stereotypes about heroin, Hughes was also a talented artist. In the early 2000s, Hughes’ work was displayed in Berlin, Miami and at New York’s MOMA. She went on to work as a designer for Old Navy and in 2007 was working as a designer for the Rosseti Group, which designs handbags for brands like Tommy Hilfiger, Nine West, Aldo, and Khols. According to an interview in Vice magazine, Hughes tied her own artistic sensibilities to the art of heroin stamps.
Hughes wasn’t shy about speaking to the media under her pseudonym, but Jynxie's Natural Habitat occasionally received unwanted attention. When Phillip Seymour Hoffman died of an overdose in February 2014, approximately 70 bags labeled "Ace of Hearts" and "Ace of Spades" were discovered near his corpse. The brand had received rave reviews on JNH, which resulted in much media scrutiny. New York Magazine ran an interview with Jynxie about the fallout from the incident, but it was unaware that she had already passed the torch. Hughes had left New York and entered recovery. She chose a young woman who went by the name "Eve" as her successor.
Eve had come across the site as a user and had impressed Hughes by being very meticulous in protecting her identity and the specifics of her location. Just a few months into her new role, Eve was frightened that the death of a high-profile celebrity would result in a crackdown against the website she had inherited from Jynxie.
Eve is a master at maintaining her secret identity; she is incredibly difficult to get in touch with. I engaged in weeks of correspondence with her before she was willing to meet me in person. As an ex addict who has been clean for four years, I came across the website by accident while googling a brand of heroin called "Purple Label," which I had overdosed on twice in 2010 before getting clean. I found an email address on the website and sent a message asking Eve to get in touch with me for an interview.
She got back to me right away but was evasive. After several weeks of email correspondence, we discovered we had a mutual friend who was able to vouch for me. Eve finally felt comfortable enough to come to my Bushwick apartment for a face-to-face interview. The young woman who showed up was shy and pretty, with makeup covering the track marks on her arms. She asked if she could use my bathroom, presumably to shoot up (which was ok with me since I had invited her). Once she came back out she was ready to open up. I started abruptly.
PH: How did the blog start? What is its purpose? How did you end up being in charge of it?
E: I had known about the blog. I had checked it for reviews and started sending in my own reviews and then Jynxie posted publicly that she was no longer a member of the market. That she wasn’t an active member and didn’t live where there were stamp bags. So I knew her from sending reviews.
PH: What would you say to critics?
E: To me the site is harm reduction. The number-one way that heroin users die is by using after they haven’t been using for a while and then using too much. Not knowing the potency of what they are using. The fact that we post bags and explain the potency and then warn people of what bags will make them sick, that is a huge thing. We are preventing people from dying. The people who think it's immoral are probably the same type of people who oppose needle exchanges and things like that. When I was traveling, I had to make sure I had needles because you can't buy them. In New York you can buy needles at Duane Reade. That has decreased AIDS.
I think people are adults and will do what they want to do. I'd rather see people do that armed with information that could potentially save their lives than do it blind. I think ultimately you find that the only reason that junkies have any animosity is due to lack of junk. I guarantee if junkies had unlimited access to dope they would be the nicest people and would take care of each other. I have had very symbiotic relationships with people who were users. We look out for each other.
PH: Any thoughts on heroin culture?
E: There is definitely a whole culture that surrounds it, a whole myth and sort of aura. I think originally that’s why people get into it. They feel like the pain of addiction will make them authentic. If you look at movies people will start doing drugs because of a psychological reason. You can cure the reasons behind the depression but you now have addiction, which is a whole other disease. There is a reason heroin is popular in prison. It helps you pass the time. It makes anywhere interesting. You could be staring at a wall; that’s part of its appeal. We spend so much of our lives doing things that are boring. Sitting around at the office eight hours a day.
PH: But that’s not ultimately a good reason.
E: No reason is a good reason.
PH: What frustrates you about media portrayals of heroin?
E: The rise of the middle-class user. It has moved from the streets into the office, lots of people who work nine-to-five jobs. In the media it's always someone who lives on the street or is an artist. In reality it’s a schoolteacher or insurance agent. People don’t immediately live on the street.
PH: How would you describe the feeling to a person who has never used it?
E: I remember I was in the caribbean and I was swimming, and the water there is like completely clear blue, it's gorgeous. I was swimming through the waves. It's not rough, it's very calm sea, and at one point I just lay there on my back. You're lying on your back in this completely clear blue ocean. That's gorgeous. There is the sun down on you, it's not too hot and you are just sort of floating in this water and feeling complete calm and complete peace. I guess if I had to characterize it, that would probably be the closest I'd say.
PH: How would you describe withdrawal?
E: For me, withdrawal feels like hell. For some reason I have very bad withdrawal. I get uncontrollable movements to the millionth degree. Moving hurts, but I can't sit still, it feels like being on fire.You can't sit down, but you can't move. Sitting hurts so I have to flail about, but flailing also hurts. It's awful. Your nose is running. You're sweating. Your eyes are watery. Your skin is crawling. It feels like your body is jumping out of your skin. I'd be tossing side to side in the bed, fall off the bed, be crawling around the room and banging my head against the wall screaming, desperate for a concussion. That horrible gutteral screaming where everything hurts so bad and all you can do is scream.
PH: Is there a certain incomprehensible beauty to it?
E: In most addicted people, it’s a coping mechanism. Everyone has a way they deal with life when it's unbearable. Some people smoke pot, some people drink, some people take a bubble bath. I do heroin. For me, heroin is how I deal with the pain of being alive.
PH: Any thoughts about Phillip Seymour Hoffman and the review of the brand that killed him?
E: What happened was incidental. He died and journalists were googling "ace of hearts" and came across the blog. Recently someone posted a counterfeit brand. You never know which is the copy or the original. Sometimes dealers sell blank bags. There is this really good and bad brand from a scary street-level guy. The high-level dude was pissed that someone below him was trying to pass it off. It ended up being a thing.
PH: Any thoughts on 12-step?
E: Men had a tendency to be more social alcoholics in the past. The best thing was to replace their social circle. [Twelve step is] designed for men in the 1950s; men who drank too much could replace their social circles with people who were sober. We’ve learned so much about addiction in recent years and yet the philosophy hasn’t changed at all. Stances on medication haven't evolved.
PH: What would you like changed about the way society handles heroin?
E: I think I'd like to see a different approach by doctors who treat it. The biggest problem is that drug treatment is as big a racket as drug dealing. Suboxone treatment programs do everything they can to squeeze every last dollar out of you. A lot of them don’t take insurance. They charge you up the ass for Suboxone. I went to one place where they charge you $250 per month just to have a doctor come say hi to you and give you Suboxone. If you fail a piss test it’s another $200. Every angle they can use to fuck with you, they do.
I'd like to see people be less afraid of it. I know people who do all sorts of drugs, but see heroin users as the scum of the fucking earth. They have zero idea about it. I'd like to get away from a lot of the stigmas about it. People think of junkies as thieving awful people who will stab you in the face for a fix. There are a lot of us who are normal fucking people.
The Brooklyn Underworld
A few months after our interview, I received a message from Eve. Dequincey Jynxie, aka Shelby Hughes, had been killed in an Oklahoma fire.
“I’m crying even though I never met her," Eve told me.
In the days and weeks that followed Hughes' death, an outpouring of love and sadness came from the most secret corners of the Brooklyn underworld. Anonymous bloggers posted tributes and lucid recollections of the woman they knew only through the blog she had created. It was remarkable to observe the mass mourning of a secret community.
Heroin users are often trapped in a cycle, fighting their addiction and society's stigma. There are precious few resources available for harm reduction, and the cult-like 12-step programs, which are the de facto treatment in America, are alienating and ineffective for most addicts.
To get a professional perspective on the issue, I spoke with Therese Sonesson, a Swedish social worker who had been employed by Norway’s successful safe injection program. Under Norway’s program, small doses of heroin are effectively decriminalized for participants. They are provided in a safe medically supervised space where they can inject.
"For a normal user you come in, fill out a form with your name and number," Sonesson told me. "You fill out how much you are going to use how much you have used today. This is all for medical reasons, and we get rid of the paperwork after a few weeks. It’s not something we keep on file. It’s just to know how much you have used or are planning on using."
She continued: "After you fill out the forms you wait your turn and then you go into the injection facility where we have six seats. We give them acid because most heroin in Europe needs to be dissolved with acid. Then we give them distilled water, a boiling cup, and a safe filter. Traditional cotton filters are dangerous because cotton has small fibers in it that can clog your veins. We also provide a candle so you can boil it. They do their thing and they do their injection. If you want to sit outside the room you can kind of relax and have your high. We can have a look at how they are doing. If there is an overdose we deal with that."
Sonesson agrees that there is validity to the harm reduction model of Jynxie’s Natural Habitat and shares many of Eve’s frustrations with law enforcement.
"The idea of Jynxie's Natural Habitat is very interesting," Sonesson said. "We use social media when there is a particularly strong brand of heroin in Oslo or when there are a lot of overdoses and we don’t have the staff to deal with it. It happens normally in the summertime. We use social media and talk to other facilities working with the same population — soup kitchens or places people hang out.
"I do not understand why American law enforcement deals with it the way it does. I think it's based on moral perceptions. I don’t understand when evidence shows us that something is effective and people just don’t want to accept it. This is why they're trying it in Denmark, where people can go to a medical facility and be treated with heroin and all this time they would otherwise spend trying to get their next fix, they can do other things with that time. They can focus on other areas of their lives. A lot of people have been amazed by how much time they have and they realize they can do art or have other things to live for. Chasing heroin is a full-time job.
"I think a lot of people benefit from the 12-step model because it’s strict and it involves community, but what I disagree with is that it is marketed as the only way and the only model. Our model gives us access to people who 12 step would never have the chance to talk to because it is a safe space. A lot of the people who come to this facility want help at some point. It’s so much easier to take the step when they know us and we have built up trust."
As of today, Eve is still using heroin and administering JNH, with the passion of an activist. I check in on her frequently and encourage her to get on Suboxone, but mostly we joke about an ever-increasing circle of mutual acquaintances. Oklahoma authorities are asking the public for any information about the arson murders of Shelby Hughes and her boyfriend Bryan VanAssche.