I Was a Heroin Junkie: Inside the Opioid Crisis
A former heroin user explains what it’s like to be a drug addict and how America might kick the habit.
When I first heard the term, “opioid crisis,” I said to myself: “We already had one of those.” It’s good that people are noticing it now, but it’s been around for a while.
The moment the heroin kicked in I was like, “Oh, I want this for the rest of my life. Every day.” It was instant: This is great. I love this. I'm gonna do this forever.
It’s the same story. First, it was pills and then, eventually, everybody said: “It's cheaper, easier, more cost-effective and efficient to just get heroin.”
Where I Come From, Drug Abuse Is the Norm
I grew up in a Minnesota college town. It was ground zero of a big heroin epidemic—the biggest in the state's history. There was even a big FBI raid.
It wasn't heroin that everybody started doing: It was opioids, pills. The big one in town was Roxicet. It has the same drug as Oxycontin: Oxycodone. It's what's in Percocet. It's widely used; it goes to a lot of cancer patients. And that's where we were getting it. The drug dealers had a connection with cancer.
When I first did that I was 15. I was a smart kid; good at school. I didn't just fall stupidly into drugs. I knew what they were. It wasn't a big surprise to get hooked on drugs. I knew that's what happens when you do them.
I was, at this point, just snorting it. My parents didn’t know. Then, we moved to the Twin Cities. So, I got my driver's license and I would drive back to my old town every weekend to go get high.
I didn't really become a junkie until I went to college in Milwaukee.
Your Addiction Is Probably Going to Kill You
I went to an art school that was admissions-based and did really well. The drugs weren't destroying my life then. They did later. It was Trainspotting later. That's the thing: You can do it and get away with it. Some people can do it for a long time. That’s crazy to me. There are people who are heroin addicts for their whole lives. Those people beat the odds because they don't die. That's the thing with heroin: You're gonna die. The odds are not in your favor.
You get a tolerance for it and you have to do more. At a certain point, your heart rate can't go any lower, even though your tolerance for getting high is really large. You have to do more and more but, then, every single time you do it you're basically playing Russian roulette. You gotta do enough to get high and you’re fucking sick if you don't do it. And that’s a nasty sick.
One thing I do want to get across is just how deadly it is. It kills a lot of people. Anybody that you know who was a junkie definitely knows some people who have died.
I have a bunch of dead friends. Another one died earlier this year who was clean for a long time. I think it's over ten friends of mine that are dead from using. Just from that. That makes it different than booze or weed. Booze kills you slowly but this one: Every time you use it, you're playing Russian roulette.
And if you, reader, did that same shot as I was doing, you’d probably die or you have to go to a hospital. All of these people are doing it as many times a day as they can. So not only are they playing Russian roulette, they’re playing it as much as possible.
No, You Can’t Be a Functioning Heroin Addict
My full-on years were from when I was 19 to 21. Those two years I was a junkie.
How did I get drugs in Milwaukee? I found somebody on the street. And spiraled from there: started using needles. That's a significant graduation in a junkie’s career—it's over.
There’s something that differentiates junkies from someone who may have an alcohol problem: Every junkie knows what they are. They’ll try to hide it, but they won't try to fool you. You're addicted to heroin: You fucking stick a needle in your arm tons of times a day. Nobody's like, “I'm just a casual heroin user. I just do it socially.” Those people who say they only smoke cigarettes when they're drinking: Nobody's like that with heroin.
There are two different parts of getting high on heroin. One, everybody calls “the rush” and that's right when you shoot up—right when you push it into your blood. Your heart feels like it stops, but that feels really good. You love that feeling. Everything feels just super intense for ten seconds. That's why everybody does heroin: for those ten seconds. Then you stay high for like an hour and you get a little less high, and stay a little high for a couple more hours after that.
Ideally, if you're a junkie, you're trying to stay high all day long. You don't want to get sober because that's not very pleasant. The next day when you wake up and it's out of your system, you get really sick. You are super cold yet super sweaty—it feels like a fever.
I still would go to class. I had the bad habit of shooting up wherever I happened to be, so I'd go into the bathroom in school or in a coffee shop or at a bar—I didn't like drinking back then because it fucks up your high. It ruins it.
I thought of myself as a well-functioning person until the end. I wasn't, at all. It mostly came down to money. It's a really expensive habit to keep, so you can’t afford it unless you're rich. I think that would be a bad thing to be rich if you're an addict because then you're gonna die. I always joked about the best way to kill a heroin addict would be to give them $1,000. That would be a sure-fire way to do ‘em in.
When I was doing it and, keep in mind this is like 2007—a gram is a lot, that's enough to kill you. Well, most people. It was usually sold in tenths: and that was ten or 20 bucks. They were always in tinfoil in Milwaukee, at least. In Minneapolis, it wasn't. It was in a little paper bindle, like origami. Regional methods of delivery, I suppose.
For 200 bucks you could get a gram. (In some places that’s really high, in some places that's really low.) At the height of my using, I would need at least four-tenths to get high, up from one-tenth at the beginning. For one shot. That's on that dangerous edge: If it's really pure, it could do you in.
The snowy cold reminds me of heroin because when you do it, you feel super warm—you can't feel cold. It's a pain killer. You don’t poop. You're totally constipated. One time my roommate and I—he was a junkie too—the two of us didn’t shit for ten days straight. Then, we both had to go on the same day and we broke our toilet. It broke the fucking toilet. We had to call a plumber and when he came he said, “What the fuck did you do this?”
Treatment Must Improve
I had one experience that should’ve been rock bottom but wasn’t. I overdosed. I was alone—I had a roommate, thank God—but I was by myself in my room. It was a “normal” dose but that day it wasn’t: the batch was purer. I overdosed by myself in my bed and then my roommate heard me trying to breathe. He told me he thought I was crying so he came into my room to see what I was crying about.
But, I was in the midst of dying.
The paramedics said I actually died for a minute. My heart stopped beating and I stopped breathing. And they brought me back to life with chest compressions. My sternum got broken. It hurt to walk upstairs.
They inject you with Narcan. They should have it everywhere. It should be like an EpiPen. It’s an anti-opiate; when you put it in your system, it immediately stops what the opiates are doing and blocks them. But it also shoots you into instant withdrawals: the worst withdrawals you can imagine.
When I woke up in the ambulance, I didn't know what was going on. It was the middle of winter in Milwaukee: cold as shit, and I was in only my underwear. I was freezing and in the most extreme pain in my life. They got me to the hospital and I was telling the doctor, “I think something's wrong. I think I'm gonna die.” You feel like you can't breathe.
They must have seen other kids come in with heroin overdoses because the nurse and the doctor were both pissed at me. They were like, “Fuck you for wasting our time on something so stupid.” They were lecturing me: “You're an idiot. Only idiots do drugs and overdose.” I get it. But it was bad timing. They were judgmental and, granted, they had a reason to be. But, I won't forget that when I told him, “I think I'm dying, I can't breathe,” he just looked at me with scorn and was like, “You're fine.”
I didn't quit after I overdosed. That didn't do it. I wish that that had been my deciding moment. I came back and I just got really, really into it the second time. I went even harder then. That's when I started paying less attention to outside things like school and I lost all of my friends. I didn't drop out but I didn't show up most of the time.
Thoughts on How to Stem the Opioid Crisis
I have no idea how it’s possible to solve this crisis. It's out of control.
Clean needles are a great start. My city had a needle van. And that probably saved my life. I used a clean needle every time. Because of that van, I don't have any diseases.
Suboxone is a miracle drug that was regulated at first and illegal for a while. When I got clean, Suboxone had recently come over to the States and accepted as a way to treat physical addiction.
What's great about it is that the opiate gets rid of your physical withdrawal symptoms—so the severe fever-like symptoms. If you can just get yourself to put that nasty orange pill under your tongue—it tastes like oranges but disgusting oranges. It's like if you took an orange Tums and then crushed up an aspirin and mixed it all together. You put that under your tongue and let it dissolve. If you can just get yourself to do that in the morning, then you're good for that day. You can't use. Even if you try, it's not gonna work. It'll be a big waste. So having that actual medical boundary between you and getting high is huge—the mental effect of that is really helpful.
It's all for your head. With addiction, you gotta take anything any resource you can get—whatever gets you through the day.
At that point, there were laws that there could only be so many Suboxone doctors operating in a certain area, and they could only treat X amount of patients. That's crazy. We have a bunch of people who need it. My doctor was just as pissed off about it as I was. It was actually fun listening to him bitch about the bureaucracy—just how dumb our medical system can be sometimes.
Methadone is not the best alternative because it's just another opiate. I used it as a street drug. In my small town in Minnesota, my best friend's brother died from Methadone.
It would be like if they treated alcoholics who used to drink a lot of vodka by giving them hard seltzers from the grocery store—but just as many of those as they could handle. That’s exactly how it seems to me: You're just trading heroin for another opiate. I guess the good thing is that it's more regulated because it's made in a facility.
If they made heroin in a regulated facility, that'd probably save a bunch of lives. But, I don't know how you could convince anybody to start selling legal, medical heroin.
I had good luck. I didn’t have to go to prison, thank God. I hate to say it but I was also a white college student. I don't think I would have the same luck if I were black or brown and not going to school on the east side of town. That's just the way it is.
Illegal Activities for the Illegal Drugs
To support the super crippling financial habit, I had to steal a bunch of stuff. I had a part-time job, so every penny of that went to heroin. I never thought of my drug money as being in the pool of money that I had to my name. If you handed me 20 bucks and said, “Hey here's a gift for you,” I would be like, “Cool that's not $20 in my pool of money that buys me clothes and food and shit. That is in the heroin pool.” And all of the money goes into that pool.
I was into music when I was a teenager and I had a bunch of nice guitars. I sold those right away. Once I didn’t have any guitars or amplifiers left to sell, I got involved in some sketchy shit that my junkie friends were doing like stealing bikes and reselling them. Or stealing hard drives from big box stores and then selling them on Craigslist. That type of shit. All the time.
My Rock Bottom Was Worse Than Overdosing
My rock bottom was when I tried to kill myself. That was super dark. I failed at it. I woke up the next day and checked myself into rehab. I went to the college counselor because I didn’t know where else to go and I dumped everything on her. And she was like, “Fuck me.” She gave me an answer that was basically like, “I have no way to handle you and your situation right now.” But she had some pamphlets and she knew of a rehab place. She got me their number. I feel so bad for that lady.
That rehab facility was great. It was an intensive outpatient. I did that for a couple of weeks, then saw somebody there twice a week for a couple of months. Then they hooked me up with a Suboxone doctor and a psychiatrist.
I had a relapse a year later for about a week. And, since then, I haven't used—so nine years clean of heroin.
The Stigma Makes It Even Harder to Help
There's a stigma about heroin users. Because they're seen as bad people, society doesn’t want to help. This is oversimplifying it but think it's similar to how we deal with homeless people. There's a stigma around them, so it makes you less inclined to want to sit down and think about how to fix the problem. A lot of people see the junkies as just scumbags and criminals. If they just didn't break the law, they wouldn’t be in this mess, right?
A lot more people knew more about me than I thought knew about me. One time, I was at a bar and saw a fellow student of mine who I knew. She came up to me in a bar and I was all ragged and strung out and super skinny back then because I didn't eat.
She came up to me and she pulled me over and sat me down and was like, “Hey, I know what's up. I know you're strung out and you look like shit. You used to be cool and I'm worried about you.” Has anybody ever said that to you? It was very cinematic and I was floored by it. She had no agenda. She just straight up felt bad about me and could tell that I was a junkie. I thought I was doing so well hiding it. That really made a huge impression on me.
And then I went into the bathroom and shot up. “Welp, back to work.”