Question: “What’s it like to be a heroin addict?”
Answer: This is a common question from people unfamiliar with the heroin world. While it may seem like a reasonable question – direct and to the point – to me it’s loaded. Asking someone what it’s like to be a heroin addict is like asking a female what it’s like to be a woman. While there are some generalizations that can be made about the whole population, the experience is different for everyone. Why we started using, how we were introduced, the groups we use in, the reason for continued use, why we like the drug, when and whether we quit or not, how we score, how we fund our habit, how we view our identities as heroin users and how we deal with the stigma surrounding that identity – everything is unique the individual. So, while some of the day to day routine of heroin users is the same, what lies at the root of our use, and therefore our experience as heroin addicts, is completely individual. That being said, I’ll focus the first part of this post on the similarities in the lives of junkies and then try to paint an accurate picture about why the experience is unique for everyone.
For heroin users who have developed a physical dependency, some generalizations can be made. We are all slaves to our next hit. Whether you’re living on the streets and begging for change to get your next fix, or counting down the second from your corner office in a fancy skyscraper till you can lock yourself into the bathroom on your lunch break, that next hit is always in the back of your mind. The ever-present fear of withdraw looms somewhere in the background.
It’s this fear of withdraw that keeps many addicts using. No one wants to endure the seemingly unbearable curse of withdraw (See Ask a Junky – Withdraws for more details). To many looking outside in, it may not seem like such a big deal, “It’s just a little sickness. Why not just suck it up and get through it.” But when you’re in the midst of it, you’ll do anything to get rid of it, especially when you know the cure is a simple shot of junk a way.
Because of the need to feed the constant monkey on your back, funding your habit is extremely important. Whether an addict holds a legitimate job, deals drugs, boosts or steals or prefers any number of other money making ventures, a significant portion of an addict’s life is spent procuring funds. Many people think of addicts as being lazy and having chaotic and unorganized lives. I completely disagree. I don’t know many people who are more dedicated, focused and determined when going about their daily duties. We have a single mission and that mission must be completed at all costs. So while we may not fit your image of the typical type-A, go-getter, the effort that we put into our heroin careers is just as tenacious as someone working their way up the corporate ladder, per say.
Another thing that unifies all junkies is the insistent pressure we receive from the outside community to quit. We are told that our behavior is bad, that we are weak willed, selfish and unmotivated for not quitting. We’re told that we should stand in lines at Methadone clinics every day for years at a time taking a drug that’s deemed somewhat acceptable (Although only for those who have already proven they have no respect for common law or decent society. But if we’re willing to repent, they’re willing to allow us our Methadone, still removed, of course, from the gentile population.) We’re constantly on guard, taking note of sideways glances or outright gasps at our track marks. We try to conceal our use to the best of our ability when trying to fit in with our communities. Some retreat entirely and try to have as little contact as possible with the straight world. Of course, there are the junkies who throw it in the face of society and live lives obviously outside of the law. They wear their junky status as a badge of honor. But for the most part, we do a pretty good job at matriculating; you probably wouldn’t even notice us on a winter’s day when we’re all covered up.
To be frank, a junkie’s life is exhausting. Between trying to raise enough money to feed our habit, taking the time to score our heroin (an often extremely time consuming task if you don’t have a reliable dealer or buy your dope on the streets), hiding our use from the world, so as to avoid stigma, or worse yet – arrest, making sure we have a safe place to administer our drug of choice and safe equipment to fix with, on top of trying to manage any outside relationships with the straight world, it’s a very tiring life. Throw in any legal trouble you may run into, adding the justice system to that list – and it’s almost unbearable. I think you really have to want to be a junky to actually be one. Most people would give up with exhaustion before reaching the point of a full-fledged addict. But for one reason or another, many people make the choice that the high is worth all the effort every single day.
That is where we all differ. No one starts using and no one keeps using for exactly the same reason. Although most clinical studies give examples like “wanted to escape from a tough life”, “hide from the past”, “fit in with friends” or “curiosity” as reasons why people choose to start using, the truth is every person who has decided to try the most forbidden fruit has a uniquely personal reason for doing so. Some make the choice more lightly than others, shrugging off the possibility of addiction or dependency, only to be surprised when they try to quit. Others go into it eyes wide open and are seeking something that will dull pain, either emotional or physical, and have a devil may care attitude towards addiction. Many find themselves with a prescription painkiller habit that may have started with a legitimate injury but soon found themselves dependent and unable to afford their habit unless they switch to heroin.
So while on the surface, most junkies do seem to live very similar lives, the answer to the question “What’s it like to be a heroin addict?” is a diverse as the people you’re asking. Some would even be offended that I use the term junky to describe them at all. I choose to use the word, despite its negative connotations, as a means to try to de-stigmatize it. The point is, we are all separate people who live very separate and diverse lives. To pigeonhole us into one small category or to expect that we’ll have the same answer to what it’s like to be an addict is to dehumanize us.
That being said, if there are any other junkies reading this who would like to add their two cents and tell us what heroin addiction is like to them, I’d love to hear your comments as well. We’ve all heard the basic NA drivel; everyone’s life must be in the crapper if your addicted to anything, let alone heroin. But above and beyond that, how has it affected you? What’s your relationship with addiction? Why did you continue to use and subsequently, why did you stop?
For me, personally, I started using because I had a very reckless outlook towards drugs. I didn’t take addition seriously and didn’t think it could be all that bad. I never deceived myself into believing I wouldn’t get addicted. I just didn’t know how bad addiction would be. I sought it out on my own, like I have just about every drug I’ve ever tried (and that’s all of them). I was never peer pressured into using everything, I was always the champion for the very mislead cause. Only when it was too late did I realize how soul crushing heroin could be, how it could completely take control of every aspect of your life and rip all of your meaningful relationships out from under you. That being said, I still believe that you can keep control of your life if you are determined to use, it just has to be a constant effort with limited use. I’ve put lots of energy into quitting and lots of energy into trying to make my life functional while still using. I’m currently on methadone and it has helped me gain more control then I thought possible at times. For me, the real question is, “Is it worth the effort?” Is it worth the constant reminder of self-control? The always-present internal fight to not let heroin take over? The constant effort to avoid detection by those in authority? The need to raise an insurmountable amount of money on a daily basis. Probably not. I know most people would laugh at the amount of effort it takes and certainly would not think it’s worth it. Again, it’s all a personal decision; one that each addict has to make for themselves at their own pace.
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