The Argument Against Abstinence

By Tony O'Neill 03/21/11

AA's total-abstinence policy works for many addicts. But not for me. After a decade of heroin hell it took a newborn baby and a few tabs of ecstasy to finally set me free.

A Junkie's Journey: Tony O'Neill Did It His Way

There were so many moments that should have counted as my rock bottom. The night I took an emaciated and bloody girl to the ER after she OD’d shooting cocaine, and the ambulance guys alerted the cops, who grabbed me in the waiting room and beat the shit out of me: I pissed blood for a week and a half.

Or when I was sitting on the toilet with my flaccid cock in my hand, pressing a trembling needle against the vein that runs up the side of it—every other vein in my body collapsed and useless—wondering if gangrene of the penis would be a worthwhile trade-off for one more hit.

The abscesses, my teeth falling out, screaming at my ex-wife because she refused to have sex with our drug dealer in exchange for a $40 dollar bag of heroin when we were dope-sick and broke. The list goes on. Unfortunately none of these moments turned out to be rock bottom; they were instead trapdoors that led invariably to ever deeper and darker caverns of degradation.

That summer of 2000, when things were at their relentless worst, I was sick and desperate. I would have crawled through a city sewer lined with barbed wire for one more bag of dope. I was what the doctors called a chronic addict. When there was finally no more money, no more credit with my dealers, no more belongings to pawn, and nowhere further to sink. I found myself in a treatment center at age 22.

I was flabbergasted when my counselor—a very intelligent ex-speed-freak who shared my admiration for the writer Charles Bukowski—told me that I would be expected to abstain from all drugs.

“Even weed?”

“Of course,” he said.


He laughed. “Yes, even booze.”

I let this sink in. As a near-dead junkie, I had—with only the greatest reluctance—finally come to terms with the fact that I would never be able to use smack again. What I hadn’t bargained for was that recovering from heroin meant spending the rest of my life completely sober. Never again being able to enjoy a cold beer on a hot summer day. No more lighting up a joint and listening to my favorite music. Sure, I might have lived to be 80 under that regime of total abstinence, but it sounded more like a life sentence than a victory.

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Tony O'Neill, a regular contributor to The Fix, is the author of several novels, including Digging the VeinDown and Out on Murder Mile and Sick City. He also co-authored the New York Times bestseller Hero of the Underground (with Jason Peter) and the Los Angeles Times bestseller Neon Angel (with Cherie Currie). He lives in New York with his wife and daughter. You can follow Tony on Twitter.