How I Walked Through a Heroin Flashback

By Zachary Siegel 04/27/16

Acute senses of meaning and love overcome the urge.

How I Walked Through a Heroin Flashback

I spent some time at my parents’ place during the holidays. I was standing in their long blacktopped driveway, about to hop in my car and head back to my apartment in Chicago, when a stomach-aching thought abruptly cued up: On your way home why not drop by the West Side, pick up a few bags? 

My mom was walking toward the front door when she told me to drive safely. The back of my throat tightened and I waved good-bye. Probably said, "Yup, okay." 

It’s been almost four years since I’ve ventured into Chicago’s all but abandoned, vaguely post-apocalyptic, open-air heroin market that no amount of policing will ever shut down. The product is too strong and the desire is too vast. Despite governmental attempts, desire cannot be policed. 

The West Side is a part of the city with few cars and even fewer people. Scraggly green weeds grow out of the neglected, cracked sidewalks. Empty lots are gardens of tiny empty baggies. Entire blocks of split-level, beige-brick bungalows are foreclosed with boarded windows. I used to shoot up in the basement of one of them. What’s left, aside from drug markets, are one stop shops serving row after row of families America left behind. The life expectancy is low, and it is statistically safer to walk around a literal war zone, hence the moniker: Chi-raq, under the regime of Viet-Rahm. 

I envisaged this landscape and smelled the dope’s vinegar from my parents’ posh, suburban home. I was able to table the cringing thought. I put the car in reverse while putting on a philosophy podcast called The Partially Examined Life. This episode set out to answer: is faith rational? I don’t think it is. Perhaps, for the thousandth time, I was trying to be convinced otherwise. 

When I got back to my apartment, I journaled about the driveway craving—yes, I keep a handwritten journal.

Was in my parents’ driveway, about to drive down to the city and had a thought: stop by the West Side on your way home, buy heroin – no one would know. 

I pulled out of the driveway trying to forget it until the paired feelings of lack and desire dissipated. I then stopped by the Sunset grocery store before I got on the expressway, picked up latkes for a Christmukkah party at my friend Jordan’s apartment. 

I imagined myself nodding out at the party: how awful it’d be if I were high. How far away others would feel. How awkward my stares at them would be. How I’d morosely look down at them for talking to one another, for having fun, while I’d listlessly eat latkes doused in applesauce. No sour cream, ever. 

That moment in the driveway left me wondering why nearly four years out of the gate, these thoughts still occur. Why it stopped me in my tracks at that particular moment in time, and in such an acute way. This must be what residual addiction is, I thought, a hyper-response to a charged environment. 

My parents’ blacktop driveway became a long hypodermic needle, with tic marks extending back to 2012, to the time I last shot up. When I last copped, I was driving the exact same car as I was at the time the aching thought hit me. I remember my mom being at the front door, eyes darkened from worry, watching me leave and wondering where I was heading to and if I’d come back. The thought hit me on a peculiarly warm winter day with faded blue skies. I remembered I was sent away to rehab in May. The week before I shipped out, I can barely remember. The moments appear as ungraspable scenes, like trying to recall a dream in the morning. 

My addiction to heroin was strong, so strong that four years later, a powerful sense-memory can transport me back to Chicago’s West Side. Addiction deals in learning and memory, research suggests. My parents’ driveway captured me in a powerful drug-associated cue that stirred me, that got me thinking in ways I hadn’t thought for a while. A 2014 paper sums up the scenario:

“The central problem in the treatment of addiction is that even after prolonged drug-free periods, well after the last withdrawal symptom has receded, the risk of relapse, often precipitated by drug-associated cues, remains very high.”

A more recent study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience Research, is said to be the first of its kind. The investigators evaluated functional connectivity in the brains of heroin users who have abstained from drug use for at least three years. I’ve abstained for almost four, so I was supremely interested in the results. 

“Compared with controls, heroin-dependent participants exhibited significantly greater functional connectivity between the right ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the NAc (nucleus accumbens) and weaker functional connectivity between the NAc and the left putamen, left precuneus, and supplementary motor area.”

That is a mouthful of neurobabble that could yield any number of interpretive meanings. I think it is substantiating what the author of the 2014 study suggested, that even with multiple years of abstinence, one’s cognitions, emotions, and learning may remain, in some way, dysfunctional. 

“In this study, we show that abnormal brain functional organization in heroin addicts persists after multiyear abstinence,” the investigators wrote.  

Where I depart from these neuroscientists is that I don’t think the post-heroin brain is dysfunctional or even aberrant. A great deal of neuroscientific interpretation, especially in imaging studies, falls prey to a position called naïve reductionism. What this means is that consciousness is but a biological function of neuronal activity, yet it describes the brain as an autonomous, projective system carrying with it, as an afterthought, the constraints of emotions and values. 

The naïve reductionist uses mechanics to understand the most complex organ the universe has ever seen. If there is a hiccup in the machine then it must be broken, disordered, or diseased. 

I consider myself an informed materialist. This means I acknowledge the importance of understanding subjective experience through both self-reflection and physiological observations. Brilliant neuroscientist Kathinka Evers perfectly states my position on humanity and the brain. 

“Informed materialism depicts the brain as a plastic, projective and narrative organ evolved in socio-biological symbiosis, and posits cerebral emotion as the evolutionary hallmark of consciousness. Emotions made matter awaken and enabled it to develop a dynamic, flexible and open mind. The capacity for emotionally motivated evaluative selections are what distinguish the conscious organism from the automatically functioning machine. And herein lies the seed of morality.”

I’m not a machine because I’m emotional, and I mustn’t fear that because emotions are central to my humanness. Thus my emotional reaction to the immediate environment of my parents’ place was not diverging from the norm, it simply is my norm.  

Later that day, as already mentioned, I journaled feeling both lack and desire. These are not aberrant emotions or states, strangely unique to ex-heroin users. I think I—as well as most Americans and even other human species—feel lack and desire constantly. That’s why I buy shit I don’t need and write shit no one reads, to quell lack: the rising feeling that I’m missing something, that if I don’t do something, anything, to distract myself from the world ending—financially, politically, climatologically—I’ll feel empty and alone: the burdens of living. 

And heroin just happens to be the quickest method I’ve ever found to extinguish this feeling. So societally, not scientifically, speaking, experiencing heroin is considered aberrant. On heroin, I can do nothing and, most of all, be no-thing, feel no-thing. That is what society deems a deviation from its norm. Humans are supposed to be, and to be an American means keeping your head down in an economy of buying useless crap. 

But not even Amazon, the ultimate American corporation, can beat heroin. Because buying crap, even with a million drones flying overhead, will still take minutes. Heroin operates in seconds. The addicted heroin user functions within a four to six hour, binary timetable: fix or be sick. This creates an existential vacuum, a tunnel vision of time, leaving the user unable to transcend beyond those four to six hours. The heroin addict thus experientially loses the future—that which guides us now. 

Which is what I understood, self-reflectively, only after I kicked. Once I was able to step outside that four to six hour time vacuum, was I able to see a possible future. Though it looked grim, I walked toward it. Humans are good at this. We’re meaning-making be-ings, able to weave elaborate narratives to keep us walking toward death, instead of jumping overboard right here and now. 

On heroin, I’m self-annihilating rather than trying to walk through a naked life, which is what I try to do now. Nietzsche said, “If we have our own why in life we shall get along with almost any how.” This Nietzschean notion of why is what keeps me from driving down to the West Side during those driveway moments, which are luckily infrequent nowadays. But to this day, this why-notion has no neural correlate. There is no why-pill I can swallow to fulfill me, to satiate my lack. For those of us who don’t do religion, we have to make up this why. For me, it’s an open mind filled by the people I love.

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