An Interview with the Heroinhead

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An Interview with the Heroinhead

By Nathan A Thompson 05/07/15

“I'm only against rehab because it blatantly doesn't work.”

Shane Levene
Photo via

The junkie-artist archetype has been around since Coleridge first flopped onto a bed and coughed into a tuberculotic handkerchief after penning his opium-inspired master poem, "Kubla Kahn." Today, one of the few genuine heirs of that rotting throne is Shane Levene. The poet, writer and artist was first recognized as the author of the blog “Memoirs of a Heroinhead,” which details the murder of his father, a childhood of sexual and physical abuse, and an adult life stitched together with hypodermic needles.

Today, he has just co-produced the book, The Void Ratio and has two further books in the works. Special editions of the Void Ratio were sent out containing original art works by Levene made from burned heroin on foil. He is also known for taking a hard stance against many issues—the capitalist money-grabbing publishing industry, the vanity of the art world and, not-least, the recovery industry. Levene insisted the interview was carried out over email and that he had complete control over the final edit. Words, for him, are as intimate as his own blood and while he has left his own blood splattered up various toilet cubical walls, he would never be as careless with his words.  

How long have you been addicted to heroin?

I've been addicted to opiates for 22 years and heroin for 15 years. During that time I've taken over 60,000 intravenous injections.

How on earth do you still find a vein?

With great difficulty and, if that doesn't work, with total disregard for my well-being. In fact, for the last year I've been whacking-up [injecting] the initial shot and smoking thereafter.

Why did you start using and why do you continue?

Why an addict begins using and why they're still using 10 years later are very different things. I acquired the mindset to want to use heroin in an attempt to regain my mother's heart. It's too long a story for here. Though what led to me first using heroin was the breakdown of my marriage after three days. Heroin did two things: it numbed the pain to an acceptable level and it also allowed me to advertise my suffering to the person who had hurt me so. Why I still use is a much harder question. The initial trauma is healed. Heroin is now a real habit; I do it because I've done it for so long and it makes me feel normal.

Would you ever try to get clean?

Yes, though I don't believe in the idea of total and eternal abstinence. So I'll never vow to quit, but I'll abstain from using for five days, or years, or maybe forever. But if ever I want to use, I will. There'll be no internal struggle, no guilt, or feeling of being a fuck-up. Going from seven injections a day to even one every few days is, for me, a big enough success. As for stuff like NA ... well, that's just bullshit. And this myth of needing to hit rock bottom. Rock bottom isn't where it ends; it's where it fucking starts!

Has your addiction helped or hindered your work as a writer?

Like any major event in an artist's life it takes away and then it yields fruit. Personally, I can't write when I'm using. I hate this myth that drugs spawn creativity. Drugs can never give anyone anything which they don't already have (except calm, sleep and death). Being an artist can’t be conditional on being high.

You have a concept of life being a process of dying, can you elaborate?

Life is a process of deterioration and I enjoy studying that and observing death creep ever so steadily upon us. I believe that living is a lot to do with the acceptance of death and our own mortality.

You have said that you hate drug addiction memoirs as a genre, how do you justify much of your writing being on a site called "Memoirs of a Heroinhead"?

It doesn't matter how the writing is titled; it matters what it is. If the words don't transcend the subject then it may as well have no title and not be written. I have a text called The Consequence of Living and that title sums up the entire philosophy behind my writing. But I'm not against drug memoirs. I'm against this lame clichéd shit people knock out without anything more going on than the subject.

You’ve written a lot about “the Black House”—a place where the most damaged and crushed souls in society lived together in squalor. What was it like being a child in that environment?

It was extremely frightening. We were surrounded by perverts and pedophiles and deviants of all kinds. It was also a place of chronic substance abuse and those people are very volatile and unpredictable. So it was terrifying and yet it was enthralling and ultimately inspired great literature within me.

Many people would draw a link between the abuse you suffered in childhood and your current addiction. Counselors and specialists, I dare say, would tell you that you have never allowed yourself to feel the pain of those years and your addiction is a continual escape from having to come to terms with that—what say you?

Well, anyone who knows me and still entertains that idea loses all credibility and intellectual respect in my eyes. I never left my childhood with any trauma. I've always felt blessed to have lived through what I did. My childhood was a rich experience. A common broken-heart fucked me up more than anything else

In your story, "Syllabus of Deceit," you’ve written disparagingly about the dishonest behavior of another junkie. Could it be that you’re in fact railing on yourself and not the character in the story?

I admit to all my rotten behaviors and criminal thoughts. That text is very simple: I relate all the tricks and dishonesty of an addict. If it were a story of me, I'd have written it as such. But I don't think the junkie need have any shame of such acts. In fact, they should be proud of them. Any man who would not steal, lie or cheat when their entire well-being depends on it, I'd be highly suspicious of. Imagine if oxygen were a limited commodity and privatized. What man without means would lie back quietly and suffocate? Stealing and lying in such instances is normal human behavior.

I remember another one of your stories, where two people tried purposely to infect you with HIV. Is it common for this to happen? Why would they do a thing like that?

This will once again produce a heap of condemnation and some will be in uproar but it is prevalent and once again it's human nature. When people are scared and feel alone they feel better knowing others are experiencing the same trauma, or worse. Some, who feel hard-done-by about having contracted such diseases feel less alone by inflicting the same fate on someone else. It comes from the same place where the abused becomes the abuser. That's a very brief answer. I could really write a book in response.

You’re something of an apologist for addiction and known for being against rehab and the recovery industry. You wrote once that you “don’t think you have anything to recover from, apart from life itself.” What is your current thinking on this? 

I still hold to that view and to my view that:

It's not the junkie who needs rehab; it's the world.

We need to solve the root problem of why so many take the drug road. I'm only against rehab because it blatantly doesn't work. But I'm all for people wanting to live a substance-free life. My ideal world would be one where no stimulants or substances are needed. With no ideal world, I understand why people use drugs. Our rehabs/schemes all have an angle of punishment worked into their philosophy, whereby you are going to fucking pay for your past sins ... you are going to suffer for sobriety. This isn't a treatment, it's a purging of the soul, a walk back through your own corruption and sin, a system designed to have you on your knees begging for forgiveness (and methadone). It's a punishment and the punishment doesn't work.

You’re an advocate of harm reduction, what is it about this approach to dealing with drug addiction that appeals to you?

I think for many addicts using heroin in the first place was a form of harm-reduction. It was for me. It just seems a shame that the thing which saved you then destroys you due to unsafe practices. The problem is, in solving often short-term problems, the practices involved can have lifelong or fatal consequences. I am for anything which can make the using years less wearing on the body.  

You’re known for turning down many book deals because you want your work to be truly authentic, does money and fame really mean nothing?

I turned down three book deals. I lost a great love of my life due to it, too. Let's just say there are certain concessions I cannot make. Fame means nothing, but money, that's another thing. I'd love the day where I can write in peace without the fear of the power being cut mid-sentence. Publishers and agents want the real deal only with a little less of the "real" in it. When it turns out you are really this monster you write about, it scares the living bejesus out of them. They want a smartened, cleaned-up version ... Someone who is not going to blow their measly paycheck on smack. I can't really promise not to do that.

You seem to be at a very fertile creative point in your life with one book just out and two more in the works, what brought this about?

The specter of oncoming death. Same ol' same ol', I suppose.

What does the future hold for Shane Levene?

Nothing. Dust. Bones. My grave being pillaged and virgins fucking my corpse. Success, death, heroin, no heroin, London, respect ... in reverse order!

Nathan A. Thompson is a journalist and poet. He has written for the Telegraph, the Guardian, Vice and Slate. His debut poetry collection, I Take Nothing Strong, Only Lightning is out soon on Wow Books. Follow @NathanWrites. He last wrote about the Cambodia needle exchange.

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