How I Didn't Kick Heroin

By Zachary Siegel 06/22/15

Three years later and I’m sure it wasn’t me.


I never quit heroin, I’m not that noble. What I mean is, there was never an instant while I was addicted where I muscled up a tremendous amount of will and acute awareness concerning myself and future, which I was sure I lacked, and said, “You know what? I’m done.” Such insight never beamed down from I don’t know where.

What initially led me to a place of quitting had very little to do with me. And I don’t mean that in any phony sense of my being humble. How humble is he who gets paid to write about himself?

The only time I had the gall to whip up a prodigious amount of awareness about my life to the point where I was overcome with genuine, mature concern as to the downward trajectory I was rocketing very fast on, was for just one ultra-brief instant on MDMA. I’m serious. It was a New Year’s Eve show in Chicago. I think one of the guys on stage was playing a saxophone. I had some months clean but was recently back on the junk and amidst bobbing craniums and trailing lasers and sweaty bodies—my own body feeling like the warm viscous substance at the center of a melted marshmallow—packed together in an atmosphere thick with smoke, a thought orbited round and round: “This isn’t what I want.”

The baggie of greyish powder stashed in my sweaty sock suddenly felt like it no longer belonged there, which led me to pull it out and drop it on the sticky floor, and I then twisted the toe of my Keds on it like I was dancing the way John Travolta did in Pulp Fiction. In deference I then bopped my head and moved my bony-shoulders to very loud electronic music the way arrhythmic Jewish people tend to do at concerts.

Early that morning—so this would be January 1st, 2012—I made it home and walked in my little bathroom where other little baggies of greyish powder were stored and listlessly snorted until the sun rose and my apartment was lit a pale wintry pink.

It’s only a coincidence, by the way, that this somewhat pathetic insight happened to occur on New Years, you know, when people quixotically make resolutions swearing to do this or not to do that, etc. This wasn’t that.

So it is mostly true that I did not quit heroin the way we imagine people normally quitting stuff, like a job or a bad marriage. When we speak of someone who quits something she is the subject doing the action of quitting. In this case, consider me a de-centered subject. English is a lousy language for this kind of idea but it’s in the middle of passive and active voice. Like, I let things act on me that then led me to quit. And these things which worked on me were resources—which I’ll soon speak to— outside my domain of control and possession. They were not miraculously, in any spiritual sense, somehow from somewhere bestowed upon me because I asked or am special to receive. There was no hopelessly individualistic zen-like epiphany smacking me upside the noggin with authoritative wisdom giving strength and will and courage to confront my problem and making a decision to quit.

I read and hear about this type of spiritual experience all the time. You’re lying supine on warm sand and you feel each and every individual grain against your back, clouds shift and morph past you, then you begin to feel disembodied, no longer feeling the difference between you and the sand, you in effect become the sand, a million tiny specs, and you melt away to a place where a presence reveals life’s problems and they fall into line and you are endowed with secret courage to one by one knock said problems down. This heroic sort of story sounds phony and abstract, like something conjured up after periods of sober reflection in attempt to make this big and confusing and overwhelming life make sense.

The way sobriety emerged for me, from this non-spiritually heroic middle-voice sort of way, can feel acutely alienating at AA meetings. You know, because I don't think any universal forces (like the universe) hear my thoughts or care about me or what I do so I rarely attend and when I do I don’t speak.

So on to these resources, which again, have nothing to do with me in a non-humble sense. The most important resource utilized, on a practical level, was my parents’ resources, mainly their monies. Sure, scoff at my privilege because I sure do and often feel guilt on top of it. The world is unfair. And my parents and family-at-large happen to be incredibly, beyond supportive. But genuine emotional support in America doesn’t pay for addiction treatment. People say treatment doesn’t work but in a sense it does. This expensive form of treatment ended up affording me luxurious isolation divorced from the world and all of its stressors, mainly, my near fatal diet of heroin and Popeyes. I was literally flown away from an all out hell I created.

And some very smart and practical researchers argue when it comes to treating addiction that changing one’s environment is just as if not more important than changing her brain. It’s also a heck of a lot more feasible.

So to iterate the extent of how much this 100-day stint inside of an expensive treatment center was not my idea, I will disclose that I shot up the morning of and once again inside the airport bathroom before reaching security, which is more than sort of bold looking back on it.

But being lavishly isolated from my former environment was not in itself powerful enough a resource to produce what I believe to be a necessary cosmic shift colossal enough to sever my attachment to heroin. Nor were the 12-step worksheets I daily filled out. Or the sickening number of group therapy hours. Pains me to say this, it also wasn’t the 5th step I did with the most incredibly compassionate, curly gray-haired spiritual adviser who gave every person that went into her office a rock she found that vaguely resembled the shape of a heart, who would also, on the spot, conjure up a lovely narrative about that specific vague heart shaped rock and why it’s the perfect vague heart shaped rock for you. Regretfully, I don’t know where my heart shaped rock she gave to me is right now.

Being inside treatment for 100 days did a lot and I’m very lucky for that but that alone, as I've mentioned, was not enough. This next majorly important resource is entirely non-physical or objectifiable and was what helped me most three years ago and has absolutely nothing to do with my being special or willful or smart or spiritual but it's too damn true not to point out and it’s by far the most important resource imaginable: people.

It was the young group of guys (17-24) I woke up with. Ate breakfast with. Sat in circles and held hands with, God grant me the serenity, etc. etc. We also fought a lot. As a sick “Mean Girls” kind of prank we voted in a guy with a deep raspy voice going through a torrent of psychological shit to be our "unit leader." And the joke was none of us would listen to him or follow his lead once he was elected. He cracked after two days and had to go to the psych ward. Hours of group processing led those who colluded to see, more or less, that we were avoiding our own problems by magnifying his problems and then exploiting them. We somehow made it through that and that guy we did this terrible thing to has a girlfriend now and is still sober. He doesn’t harbor ill will toward us, last I checked. In fact, several of us from this small cohort are still clean and sober today. Quite a few of us still keep in touch.

By the end of the stint, this group of young men taught me how to be. They showed me who I was. This small micro-world of kids in treatment became a new world. And it was a world I finally felt connected to which therefore lent itself to my feeling connected to an even bigger world. And it was this big world that I swore off of and obscured with heroin. In a sense, a world I had closed off opened up to me.

I was unable to see how stunted my life became on heroin. People were these fleshy obstacles. That’s why I lied alone, supine on a futon, watching movie after movie with the drapes drawn. That’s why when my phone buzzed my throat felt heavy and my chest hurt in the heart area. My neighbor knocked on my door once at night and it almost killed me. Because people reminded me of things I wanted to forget. Like, how absurd and beautiful being alive is, the utter strangeness of being minded in a gigantic and mostly mindless universe. Why are there beings and not no-things? These are mysteries large enough to sustain my interest in living an alert life. On heroin I was about as active as blade of grass. I can’t be alive and doing life stuff while doing heroin. I just can’t. It’d be too sad and solipsistic and people I can’t live with out will become objects to dodge. I cannot dodge the world anymore. Once I let it open up to me, it became too big and overwhelming to mute out. I’m not sure I would have never re-accessed this aliveness had I not been thrown into the small micro-world of treatment with this group of mostly unstable guys.

So maybe this was the most convoluted way I could think of to say that I’m clean for 3 years because of 1) my parents’ love and resources coupled with 2) the bonds that were re-formed with the human race and world while I was in treatment. It’s all absurd and totally by chance and my role in it has been minor. Hunter Thompson said, “Buy the ticket, take the ride.” Well, my parents bought my ticket and a lot of other stuff and the ride has taken me.

But going beyond me, I think the way I cleaned up needs to be brought up more. We need to derail these heroic success stories with a strong person at the center. Because I think in America, in this hyper-individualistic, hyper-real, post-postmodern techno-world we find ourselves in, we’re all de-centered subjects. Heroes don’t exist anymore and good riddance.

Lastly, we need to recognize the vast web of convoluted systems people live in. I happened to be part of a loving and caring family with plenty of resources to throw at my addiction. What about those who don’t have access to that? Are they weaker than I? Do they not pray properly to the right god? That’s nonsense. People, in fact, are their possibilities and if none are ever given to you then what are you, really?

Zachary Siegel, is a regular contributor to The Fix. He last wrote about whether AA is at fault for the murder of one its members and interviewed Ethan Nadelmann. Follow him on twitter.

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