Kicking Heroin Cold Turkey Changed My Life - Page 2

By Al Smith 10/03/18

Nobody ever tells you how it feels, especially for the first time.

Young man sitting on the floor, hands at sides of head. Looks anguished.
This was the most pain and anguish I had ever experienced in my life, and I had given it my best shot, but there was really no point in going on.

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I bought a couple cases of water, a few bags of salted jerky, and a rotisserie chicken, and then locked myself in a spare room at my grandparents’ home. There was a lot of family in town, so they would be busy for the next couple days. I felt ready for anything.

But, just like nothing could prepare me for the pleasurable feeling that heroin washed over me, neither could reading about the cold turkey process ready me for how horrific it really was. Below is my attempt to be as straightforward about the process as I can be, and to tell it as factually as I can...

Once I was 14 hours in from my last fix, I consider the withdrawals to have truly begun. First, it starts with intense cravings. You want heroin more than you’ve wanted anything in your entire life, or at least you think you do. I constantly reminded myself that this was a trick, but I’m not sure I believed it at the time. Remember, after you’ve become dependent on heroin, your brain is practically incapable of producing positive thoughts. I tried to remember happy memories of James, but they were fuzzy in my mind. Beyond this, my concept of time began to blur for the next several days.

After I had neglected my strong desire to use, I began to get uncontrollably irritated. Every time I clattered my teeth or made a sound, I would frustrate myself to the point that I wanted to punch a wall. I started to scream into pillows to let off steam. However, this got harder once the nausea set in. I was prepared for this. I had read all about the physical effects that would happen to me. However, reading did little to mitigate the sickness and dizziness. Pretty soon, standing became a difficult task.

I stayed in bed and attempted to control my breathing. For a little while, I was even almost able to relax. This was short lived, though. Again, I knew that the skin crawling sensations were coming, but I didn’t realize how sporadic it would be. Everywhere on my body felt like it was on fire. I tried to hold my breath and keep still, but pretty soon I was scratching everywhere I could reach. After a matter of minutes, my arms were bleeding. I wrapped my fingers in duct tape to prevent myself from doing further harm.

I knew that I would eventually start vomiting and purging everything in my body. I had readied myself for all of the physical effects. However, the true hell of heroin withdrawals isn’t in the physical aspects, it’s the mental side effects that really get you. At this point, my irritability had climbed to a full-scale anger. I kept clenching my jaw so bad that my gums started to bleed. All I could do to let out the energy was to continue screaming into a pillow, but I was starting to get tired. Then, out of nowhere, the vomiting started.

I vomited and dry gagged in a throbbing cycle that lasted about an hour, but would continuously rear up throughout the whole process. While the initial vomiting was quite painful, it actually provided me some relief from the thoughts in my head. Afterwards, I was so overcome with exhaustion, that I was actually able to sleep for several hours. To my memory, this was the only continuous sleep I would have for about two days.

Although I very much needed these few hours of sleep, it almost wasn’t worth it because of the nightmares that started at the end and woke me up. Up to this point in my life, I wasn’t very prone to nightmares at all, and could probably have counted the number of nightmares I had had (or at least remembered) on one hand. However, the dopamine from my last hit was finally hitting the dregs, and my brain couldn’t produce anything to balance itself out, chemically.

I woke up in a cold sweat and felt paralyzed with fear. For the next several days, every time I would start to fall asleep, nightmares and partial hallucinations (waking nightmares) would jolt me awake in terror. After a few times of trying to doze off, I began to question my own sanity. We tend to hear a lot about the physical aspects of heroin withdrawals, but one of the most dangerous threats to people going cold turkey is suicide.

Somewhere at this point, although time was a bit of a blur, my mind hit rock bottom. My dopamine receptors were doing nothing at this point, and my brain began to fall apart, unable to produce a single happy thought. The world was a bleak pit, and I was just washing around at the bottom of it. I had felt small bouts of depression before, but this was soul-crushingly different. Out of instinct, I began to pray. I begged God to make the pain end. I begged for a light at the end of the tunnel. I begged for some sort of sign or to be saved from my own thoughts.

Then, it occurred to me how easy it would be to simply end it all right there. It wasn’t hard to reason myself into it. I could be with Eric and James. We could be the three musketeers again! This was the most pain and anguish I had ever experienced in my life, and I had given it my best shot, but there was really no point in going on. I’m sure that God would understand. I knew that he would have mercy.

It was then that I remembered the thought that saved my life. I didn’t need a happy memory. I needed the memory of feeling the worst I had ever felt. I needed to remember the self-loathing that washed over me at James’ funeral, as I heard the people I cared most about bawling uncontrollably in pain, because of me.

And then it hit me as if the sky fell down: God wasn’t there.

I don’t expect everyone to have this same revelation. It was an incredibly personal moment to me. Addiction recovery programs frequently talk about needing to surrender to a higher power, and this was my own special ‘higher power’ moment.

It wasn’t that God didn’t care, or that he was cruel, or that I couldn’t understand his grand plan. He wasn’t there. There was nothing above me or below me that wasn’t a meaningless abyss. A void of space that stretched beyond what my brain could conceive for absolutely no reason. There was no cavalry coming to save me, and there was nothing waiting for me if I were to die now; just more pain for my family.

I had gotten myself in this situation, and only I could get myself out. I was going to have to do this Eric’s way: survive, out of spite. I abandoned every notion of meaning I had ever put on the world, and replaced it with this one simple purpose. For the rest of this battle, that would be my single function. I may have wanted to die, but I had too much hate to give in. If you can’t find happiness, hate can be a powerful motivator.

The only thing I knew was that I would not be the next reason my family grieved and hurt. I would survive. No cancer, or heroin, not even God himself would stop me. If I died and woke up in heaven, I would have killed every last angel to get back to Earth; to get back to my family.

Dramatic? Yes. But the mind of an addict suffering from heroin withdrawals is hardly a place for subtlety.

From this point on, I sat against the wall, and remained there for about a day, just staring and drinking water. I wouldn’t let myself fall asleep and be the victim of yet another night terror. Every craving and thought of suicide filled me with more and more spite, and I sat there, stewing in it, until finally, I could feel the physical effects wearing off.

I had survived.

The cravings continued to last for months. Even years later, I sometimes have a sharp, discernable memory of how good the pleasure of heroin felt. But I can say with certainty that I don’t have the temptation to use. If I sat in an empty room with an ounce of heroin, I wouldn’t even have the slightest desire.

In that room, I burned down who I was as a person, and built something else with the pieces that I had. Truth be told, going cold turkey is a horrible idea, and isn’t safe to try under even the best of circumstances. Please, if you or a loved one find yourself struggling with heroin dependency, get professional help and stick with it. This is by no means a road map to fighting addiction. It doesn’t really feel like a feel-good story, either. Hell, I’m not even sure if this is a happy ending.

But it’s my story.

*Names have been changed for the sake of anonymity.


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Because of the sensitive nature of this article, the author has chosen to use a pseudonym.