This is My Brain on Heroin . . . .

By Zachary Siegel 01/14/15

Monotony, time, Jacques Cousteau, Space Walks and of course Nietzche, a few of our favorite Junkie things . . . . .


Opium is profane and quantitative, like money – William S. Burroughs

In what is arguably the first drug-memoir ever written, Thomas de Quincey describes in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater his first experience on laudanum with hallucinatory, quasi-religious fervor:

“But I took it: —and in an hour, oh! heavens! what a revulsion! what an upheaving, from its lowest depths, of the inner spirit! what an apocalypse of the world within me! That my pains had vanished, was now a trifle in my eyes:—this negative effect was swallowed up in the immensity of those positive effects which had opened before me – in the abyss of divine enjoyment thus suddenly revealed” (44).

I’ll admit to the fact that I was addicted to heroin for four steady years. It began with synthetic opioids, hydromorphone and oxycodone, as it usually does with the millennial generation. 

Unlike most narcotics that propel the self-outward, onto the world, opium and all of its derivatives, synthetic or not, cause users to crawl inside themselves, a place most of us would rather not dwell. In the de Quincey quote we see his world goes dark. The euphoria as such overrode the reason he took the laudanum to begin with—to kill pains of a toothache. He then says that something divine was revealed to him. And it is this revealing that I find to be most interesting. The world revealing itself to you is the activity of phenomenology: finding all in life that is hidden from view. The Latin occultum is where we get the words "hidden" or "concealed." It is similar to our word for the supernatural, or some kind of mysticism: the "occult." For the next few hundred years, opium and its derivatives are referenced as something dark, divine, and dangerous, which become both the allure and toxin of the chemical. It is revealing the experience of the user that is the primary inquiry here, as we move forward. 

Junkie Jacques Cousteau

In almost all of the recorded encounters with opioids there is something of an oceanic exploration of the self being performed. Painted is a morphing surface of beautiful bright blue’s reflecting yellow sunlight, mystical warmth. And below is a murky undercurrent, canyons and caves and creatures, things that are equally as beautiful as the surface, however are invariably painful and visceral. So much so that it’s hard to hold your gaze for very long without scrambling to the surface for air and sky. It’s no coincidence that in literature, heroin is described by many as a "black water."

I’ll admit to the fact that I was addicted to heroin for four steady years. It began with synthetic opioids, hydromorphone and oxycodone, as it usually does with the millennial generation. Lab-heroin was a habit that lasted a few years before heroin came into play. But I find myself reluctant to write about this part of my life because it is totally ordinary. People have problems, they suffer, they get help and they overcome them—or they don’t. However, in the everydayness of heroin use, in the boring and the ordinary, lies some original or foundational understanding of what the being of being-addicted to heroin actually is, an exploration of negative space, alongside slumming, craving sweets, and preoccupation with doing more heroin. 

Space Walks

Alexander Trocchi, a Scottish novelist who acquired his addiction among the avant-garde in Paris, called himself, "a cosmonaut of inner space." He wrote this eerie prose a half-hour after a fix: 

"I stood the needle and the eye dropper in a glass of cold water and lay down on the bunk…The mind under heroin evades perception as it does ordinarily; one is aware only of contents. But that the whole way of posing the question, of dividing the mind from what it's aware of, is fruitless. Nor is it that objects of perception are intrusive in an electric way as they are under mescaline or lysergic acid… It is that the perceiving turns inward, the eyelids droop, the blood is aware of itself."

Trocchi was considered a nihilist writer, with heroin being his “equipment.” Tom McCarthy in 3 AM Magazine said that the space Trocchi writes about and occupies is entirely negative, hence even the "fruitlessness of evading perception." Trocchi also makes a necessary distinction between heroin and hallucinogens. As I said before, most narcotics propel the self-outward whereas heroin is an entirely inward affair: blood being aware of itself, the cosmonaut rockets inside itself and like space, the person who is addicted floats in a positively charged vacuum. A place that should not be. The heroin addict is confronted with the impossibility of existence itself.


A basic phenomenological principal of existence is that we live before a temporal horizon, meaning there are always things ahead of us that which we act toward. Unlike other living things humans can uniquely imagine a future that has not yet happened, does not exist, and meet up with it.

For instance, it is 10am and working in the cubicle has given you a restless mood. You know in two hours that you will have a lunch break. In order to keep the work going, to remain engaged and do your assigned tasks, lunch time, two hours, food, are simply possible ideas in the back of your head guiding your every action toward what is not yet. 

So it becomes the lack of a time horizon that gives birth to the experience of occupying negative space. It is the void that he or she plunges into. The same space that Trocchi and many others have occupied. Insofar as we do live before temporal horizons, what makes the heroin addicts experiential lens structurally fractured is the utter disinterest in, or of potential futures. Sure, it is cliché that the nihilist writers have gloomy outlooks and a tendency toward bleak repetition and monotony, though this is not inaccurate, it is must be understood that by nature the not-yet’s and potential futures for people addicted to are by nature repetitive and meaninglessly painful. This is how time breaks for a user. Heidegger said something like, where there is no (hu)man, there is no time. Heroin addiction itself is a will to nothing. Experience begins to splinter. Time is no longer a force that is a centering point for the person who is using. There is no forward or backward. The person who uses will sit there somewhere in ‘unproductive productivity.’

While being on heroin, there is always already a known fact that it will wear off. While high, one waits to be not high and while not high, one waits, often on dealers, to become high. Burroughs said in Junky that "what you experience during a habit is flat, almost two-dimensional...A junkie spends half his life waiting." My worst nightmares that I can recall--about all that I can recall--were being sick, and waiting.


Having done the majority of my heroin use in Chicago, Nelson Algren’s Man with the Golden Arm took me by storm. There is a stunning passage, in real time, of a man who is dope-sick who then receives a shot. This prose epitomizes the inevitable sickness followed by euphoria of everyday heroin addicts, and why the future is best left as a non-thought. The experience below is an example of the eternally swinging junk-pendulum:

“Warm. Make me warm.”…He was falling between glacial walls, he didn’t know how anyone could fall so far away from everyone else in the world. So far to fall, so cold all the way, so steep and dark between those morphine-coloured walls….”

“It hit the heart like a runaway locomotive, it hit like a falling wall. Frankie’s whole body lifted with that smashing surge, the very heart seemed to lift up-up-up—then rolled over and he slipped into a long warm bath of one long orgasmic sigh of relief.” (pp. 58-59)

It is far too burdensome for one to be reminded of this reality day in day out. 

I was young when I began my descent. And there is little that is profound, poetic, or original about my experience. By the age of twenty-two I had become a recluse. I said “no” to everything, but heroin of course. And I remained hidden in my Denver apartment that which my parents paid rent on while they were under the impression I was going to college. It was in that apartment that the pendulum swung from euphoria to sickness, day-in-day-out. It was there where I experienced my own fractured living. Day.s months, so painfully monotonous that my recollection of it is one long scene where nothing occurs.

A Virus

The quote from Burroughs I chose for last, Heroin is profane and quantitative, like money. I know what he is saying here, what he means, with his usual medical-polemics: it is a disgusting virus of an object. Unlike money though, the junkie’s balance is always in the negative. The suppliers kick back and collect, the dealers get “hood-rich,” the drug czar gets both riches and political fame, the neighborhood watch feels proud looking at the cleanness of another junkie kicked off their curb, but the addict is always in the negative, barely able to crawl to the corner for a fix. This is not so much the leisurely depiction of heroin as seen by Trocchi or de Quincy. This is the modern experience. Simply put, it is shit. And virus is no more than an infecting agent.

Burroughs spent some time training in Vienna to be a doctor and looked toward addiction in its purest physiological register. He called heroin addiction a “junk virus—public health issue #1.” But he was also familiar with the existentiality of the heroin addicts everyday-living. And it is by no accident that his novel Naked Lunch and Trocchi’s Cain’s Book are by and large plot-less. That is because the heroin addict’s life itself is plot-less: a long and slow series of repetitions, ritual, and futility. The swinging pendulum: sickness to euphoria with the return always to sickness. I’d go one step further and say that real-life itself, being addicted to heroin or not, is plotless. Does your life have a plot?

Yes or No

When I read that Nietzsche hated alcohol because he felt the effects too closely resembled those of Judea-Christian morality, I then thought that heroin must be the Scientology of narcotics. There then came a juncture where I had to say yes or no to life itself, and nothing beyond. Life, and nothing else. No heroin. No cozy spiritual realm. No beyond. No easy answers. Like many who I have quoted in this post, I want nothing to do with making things easy. Life isn’t easy. Thinking about life isn’t easy. The only equipment we have to engage with life is ourselves, aided by those around us. They play a pivotal role. But "they" are no elusive "they," they are not spectral. What they do is keep us from drowning in black water; keep the black water from flowing in and through me. They make the space a positive space. 

Zachary Siegel is a regular contributor to The Fix. He last wrote about whether AA is at fault for the murder of one it's members and interviewed Ethan NadelmannFollow him on twitter.

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