It’s hard to describe how heroin feels. William S. Boroughs called it “vegetable serenity”. Melvin Burgess called it “Chinese magic”. To me, heroin felt like waking up with the sun shining on your face, in clean, silken sheets. It felt like pure contentment – at least for a while, until I came to know the torment that an addiction would bring.
The first time I noticed people taking heroin, I was 20, at a house party, and in my second year of university. People were slipping off in small groups into closed rooms whilst everyone else whispered about what they were doing. The party belonged to a musician who my friend Ed had met at AA, and a couple of weeks later, he took us to another party where people were doing it, at a woman’s house.
She was older than us — an artist with outrageous stories. She was casually smoking heroin off a mini Martell bottle and passing it around. At first I said I didn’t want any. But then I got curious. I had moved to London to experience things, and I wanted to know how this felt. After inhaling a few times, I was completely underwhelmed. ‘Was this it?’ I thought. I felt warm and comfortable, but there was no extreme, debilitating high like I’d seen in films. No after-effects.
A few weeks later, I did the woman with the Martell bottle a favour and as a ‘thank you’ she offered me a tiny bag of heroin. I said I didn’t want it — I wouldn’t do anything with it anyway — but she told me to take it as a gift. It sat in my room for a month or so, until one night I finally opened the bag with a close friend. We orchestrated what we thought was a poetic experience, with a record playing and candles lit. We smoked it and I vomited at first, but persevered, smoking small amounts throughout the evening, talking and talking until the early hours. The next day I didn’t think about it much. It was an out of the ordinary experience, sure, but I had university and work to get back to.
The rest of the bag of heroin sat in my room. But the following weekend not much was on, so I invited my friend back to hang out and smoke again. Like having some cocaine on a night out or smoking weed at a friend’s house, this would be something I only did now and then, with certain friends, I thought.
When the bag ran out I replaced it. It was cheaper than cocaine and alcohol – £10 could have me high for two days. Soon I was getting it regularly, through “friends”, but I noticed that each time I took the bag off one of them, they had stolen from me a little more, giving me less than they should. So I started to seek it out on my own from dealers who I’d previously bought weed or coke from. As I began to buy it by myself, it also became less social – something I would do on my own. My friends were staying in a lot, studying for our third year exams at university, and I pretended I was doing the same. Only, by then I was smoking heroin three or four times a week. And the worst part was that I was functional; I could study and go to lectures with no hangover, no comedown and no repercussions. I was getting good marks. I thought of heroin as my treat — if anything, I told myself, I was being “good” because I wasn’t going out all night.
In my mind, I didn’t have a problem because I was functioning.
In my mind, I didn’t have a problem because I was functioning. This idea was reinforced by the fact that, while the rest of my friends worked in bars around this time, I had a high-flying job for an events company. I was making good money, but blowing all of it — hundreds of pounds each week — on buying drugs. I would smoke secretly at work in the bathroom, and found a dealer near to my office, in case of emergency withdrawal. The first time it impacted my job, I was at a party that I had organised and I started to feel sick. I ran outside to try to find a dealer on the street, but I couldn’t. With no fix to make me feel better, I had to tell my boss I was ill, get a cab home, and wait for the drugs to arrive.
They say that nobody hits rock bottom, but rather you live it, and this is what happened to me
It kept going this way for a while; I stayed high around the clock while I worked, borrowed money from people and sold my belongings on eBay, while jumping from living situation to living situation. When I tried to contact them, there was a lot of backlash from my university friends, who I hadn’t seen in months. Their hostility towards me for not having been around much quickly turned to suspicion and fear. They tried to intervene, to ask what was wrong with me, but I was so used to lying that I managed to talk my way out of any real confrontation. I began avoiding my old friends altogether and only making time for other people that had managed to convince themselves that heroin was no big deal. It was more convenient that way, and if it started to feel lonely, well – then I would just smoke until I felt nothing.
They say that nobody hits rock bottom, but rather you live it, and this is what happened to me. When I looked in the mirror, I accepted the skeletal image looking back at me. When I put on my clothes, I was used to their baggy fit. Like you need food and water to function, I needed heroin to subside, and my whole life revolved around getting it. By that time, the heroin high wasn’t enough, and so for a few months, I started mixing heroin with crack. My dealers called it “Brandy and Champagne”. On the one hand it made heroin feel new again, but it also made me unravel even quicker; it was more expensive and I was soon completely broke. I could no longer go to work and I could no longer afford my rent. I was also struggling to afford the drug, and in between taking it I was now sober for long enough to realise that I couldn’t live like this anymore.
All I could do was lie in bed, immersed in anguish and self-loathing.
Taking yourself off heroin, or going “cold turkey”, can only be described as living hell. My insides felt like they were searing, and yet my skin was coated in cold sweat. It hurt just to move or be touched. All I could do was lie in bed, immersed in anguish and self-loathing. I quickly knew I couldn’t get clean this way, it hurt too much physically, so my boyfriend, Tom, who had decided he wanted to get clean with me, found a place in London called CDT [Community Drug Team] Lifeline. I went to their clinic and they put me on a medication called Subutex, an opiate substitute that helps addicts wean off heroin. When you start the Subutex programme, your body has to be completely devoid of heroin for 24 hours. But if you don’t wait long enough, you’re thrown into precipitated withdrawal: all the heroin in your body is displaced at once and your body experiences extreme version of withdrawal symptoms.
I had tried several times but could never make it the full 24 hours. At one point, I was in so much pain and so convinced I was going to die that I had to call my mum to come and help. I had never seen her cry like she did that day. When she arrived she immediately called an ambulance. I was so weak that the paramedics carried me out. I told the doctor what happened and he said I needed to take the time to complete a recovery programme with Methadone or Subutex (buprenorphine). I started crying and saying I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want to return to my life. I didn’t want to do anything, I just wanted to close my eyes and for it all to go away. I told my mum what happened, fully expecting her to say she never wanted to speak to me again. Instead she took me home with her and supported me through those first weeks of recovery.
I had felt no pain or sadness for years while I was on heroin – now, I was paying back threefold
A mixture of cognitive behavioural therapy and another course of Subutex were my lifelines to getting clean. But I will say that, with physical sobriety came a painful mental comedown, as I began to realise that I had destroyed my life at 23. I can’t describe how miserable I was. I had felt no pain or sadness for years while I was on heroin – now, I was paying back threefold with depression. I’d lay in bed and try to sleep the day away, or stare at a point on the wall for hours on end. I knew I needed a job, but I worried I would just fuck it up. There was a month where I couldn’t look at my CV and would have a panic attack at the thought of even opening the file. The CBT was instrumental in helping me overcome that fear. After a few sessions I called a friend who worked at a charity for young people, and she asked me to help her organise a two-week training course she was running. After two years of miserable failure, I needed it to get me out of bed every morning, and it made me finally feel like I was doing something valuable
Today I’ve been clean for more than two years, I have a great job and my life feels on track. I can drink and party without feeling tempted. Now and then, if I’m really upset, I might think about smoking heroin, but it’s a fleeting thought that I would never act on. Nothing could suck me back in to that life because I’m still dealing with the repercussions; building up the relationships with friends and family I destroyed, as well as the loss of confidence. I also get flashes of my past life; hearing a song or passing a street can transport me back to old feelings of pain and heaviness. Once, I even saw one of my dealers on the street; I was with a friend and I was terrified he would try to sell to me again in front of her, but he just said “You look good!” and walked away.
I don’t know what I could say to my younger self to discourage trying heroin. The drug is heavily romanticised across art forms, so it’s not surprising that whole droves of intelligent people are smoking, snorting and injecting smack and feeling like they’re in some sort of secret members’ club. But I desperately wish I understood that with heroin there is no tipping point. Even though time passes between ‘casual heroin use’ and ‘full blown addiction’, it’s incredibly difficult to discern at what point you have a problem... at what point the light shining on your face has turned into the darkest days of your life.