Kicking Heroin Cold Turkey Changed My Life

By Al Smith 10/03/18

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

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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.

There were three of us.

Eric was dashing and handsome, with eyes that cut through you, even as a child. He’d walk into a room and own it, immediately, and he knew it. He had leading man features that greatly resemble Chris Pratt, after he got sexy.

James was the athlete, gifted with a physique that a teenager shouldn’t have been allowed to have. He was also kind to a fault, and loved God in the way that a puppy loves anything. If being a charismatic, fun-loving priest didn’t work out, he would have settled for being the NFL’s hottest running back.

And then me: two years younger, two heads shorter, with eyes twice as wide when I’d look at my cousins, whom I worshipped. I thought of myself as their sidekick, but to be honest, if they were both Superman then I was a bundle of kryptonite around their necks, weighing them down. They didn’t mind, though. It kept them human.

Musketeers. That’s what our family called us, and we were inseparable. We came from a prototypical Irish-American Catholic family (which means lots of kids). If you’re at all familiar with that demographic, you know that such families are tightly knit. Since the three of us were so close in age, our parents made sure that we spent time together, every single day. “Protect each other!” They’d always say.

Even though Eric and James were two years older than me, they always encouraged me to hang out with them and their friends after school, but only after all my work was done. Ironically, it was my cousins more than my parents who forced me to get my homework done, but that could have been because they needed me to help them with theirs. I could never have hoped to be as cool as my cousins, but book smarts came easily to me. Together, we were a perfect team.

And then we lost Eric.

Not immediately. Acute myeloid leukemia works quickly, but it still gives you plenty of time to wait for the inevitable. After chemo failed, the doctors gave him two months. Eric gave them four. He frequently joked that he was going to live forever, despite having leukemia, just out of spite. In fact, he probably put up the most convincing happy face during the whole ordeal. In a way, this helped a lot of us. If Eric wasn’t scared, then why should we be? But underneath, he had to be frightened to death.

Eric died in his senior year of high school, a few weeks before Christmas. I can’t believe that we found enough tissues for his funeral. My family doesn’t pick favorites, but deep down, I think everybody knew that Eric was the most beloved of any of us. He was the all-American boy we loved to boast about. Despite the tears, though, something felt dignified about his funeral. I think my whole family was proud that he put up a fight, that he went down swinging. That’s the kind of people they are.

James and I took it harder, though. Family mattered to us more than anything, but what we had with Eric was something else. It was like a family within a family. And Eric was always our fearless leader. I thought he was invincible. As for James, I think he felt like a knight with no prince to follow.

“Always protect each other,” our family would say.

How?

***

A few months earlier, James hurt himself playing football; torn ACL, his senior season cut short. To be honest, I wasn’t surprised when he did. As I watched him play, I thought he seemed angry. This was during the waiting game with Eric. It was while treating this injury that James received his first prescription of painkillers.

Even after Eric died, James and I were still inseparable. I think I was the first one to notice that he was particularly fond of his medication. Besides numbing the pain from his injury, I think it helped him feel numb to the situation, and made him seem stronger than he was. Despite this, he got even more active than he already was in the church. If his plan B of being an NFL superstar was out the window, he’d have to work extra hard to make sure that the priesthood worked out. We sang songs together at church. Even though I was angry that Eric had been taken from us, I loved God more than I ever had. I had to. Eric was somewhere better, and that’s all there was to it.

Two years went by, and James was still taking his pills. He mainly avoided taking them around family, but we were together too much for him not to do it around me. I wasn’t stupid, I knew his prescription ran out a long time ago. Without a prescription, opioids can get expensive, and it was only a matter of time before James found a cheaper, stronger substitute.

And that’s how we both started doing heroin.

At this point, I was a fairly upstanding high school citizen. I attended school full-time and worked an after-school job. Schoolwork came easy to me, and grades and test scores followed. On top of that, I still sang in church with James and volunteered with the Catholic Services food bank. I was responsible to a T, and I hated it.

There’s not a lot of glamor in being the responsible one in a family that tells stories of war and fights, and values adventure above all else. Sure, the whole family would throw a barbeque every time an acceptance letter came in the mail, and they never showed anything but pride and support. But I wanted experience. I was young and stupid and had a thirst for everything that I couldn’t have. So when James switched from the pills to the heroin, I took some and tried it on my own (you can learn anything on the internet).

Nobody ever tells you how it feels, especially for the first time. To this day, I can promise you that the most euphoric moments in your life cannot compare to the rush that heroin will give you; not love, not sex, not pride, nothing! Literally, it’s chemically impossible. Heroin forces your receptors to overload, giving you an overwhelming feeling of pure pleasure.

One time, and I was hooked.

At first, James was furious with me, although I suspect he was more furious with himself. At that point, though, we both already knew what it felt like, and neither of us was going to stay away.

For the next six months, we both used regularly whenever we could. James had a full-time job, and I had a part-time one with no expenses. On top of that, people always expected us to be around each other. There were no obstacles in the way of our continued drug-fueled lethargic shenanigans. During this time, I maintained my grades, my job, my church activities, and my relationship with my girlfriend, who was in the dark about my darkest habit. Somehow, I had convinced myself that I could maintain everything I had while still being a heroin addict. Anyone who couldn’t figure it out was just too foolish.

There is a cost to such pleasure, though. Due to the amount of dopamine that is released in your brain when you do heroin, your brain starts to get complacent, and won’t produce any new dopamine without the stimulation of heroin. Over time, this meant that I couldn’t feel pleasure, or giddiness, or satisfaction, unless I had recently used heroin. Towards the end of school days, I would get irritable, getting restless for my next fix.

James realized this before I did. He never excelled in school, but he always had much more emotional wisdom than me. It’s because of this that he told his parents about his addiction. I first found out from my parents that he had told them, and I selfishly was terrified that he had ratted me out. But James would never do that without my consent.

“Always protect each other,” they’d say.

James, with the help of family, started getting treatment. In the meantime, I continued to shoot up in his bedroom while he tried to convince me to do the same. Near the end, I was strongly considering it. Even at the point when heroin had the strongest hold over my life, I still loved and trusted James more than pretty much anything in this world. And truthfully, he was doing well. He hadn’t used for nearly a month.

But then I made a mistake.

One night, I took the bus home from James’ home and went to bed. Early in the morning, though, I shot awake with the realization that I had left my bag in his room, and in that bag was the thing that James most needed to stay away from. As I hurried to get back to his home, my stomach was already filling up with a sickness of certainty.

James was already long dead when I walked into his room.

I thought my heart was going to pound out of its chest. I’m ashamed to admit that my first thought was that I needed a fix, and then my second was how long it would take to bleed out if I cut my wrists. At that moment, I probably could have found the courage to cut my own throat. Somehow, I did neither of these things, and managed to call 911.

And then there was one.

If he had never have gotten help and stopped using, the dosage wouldn’t have killed him, but he didn’t lower it to compensate his reduced tolerance. This irony never escaped me, even when I first found him.

This funeral was harder than Eric’s. It was harder to find the dignity, to justify the purpose of this loss. Eric’s death brought sadness to my family. James’ death ripped the rug out from under them.

Everybody blamed themselves. His parents thought they didn’t try hard enough. His older siblings thought they weren’t good enough influences. My grandparents felt they didn’t talk to him enough after Eric died.

But it was me. If there was a metaphorical trigger to pull, then I was the one who did it. Not only was it heroin that I bought that killed him, a fact my family was woefully ignorant of, but I was the one who continued to use in the environment that he needed to be a safe space. I was too proud to think that I needed help, and it cost the life of a far kinder person and gentler spirit than me.

As I looked at his open casket, all I could think was that I was the worst fucking scum on the planet, and that I should follow him into the ground.

But as everyone I love wept around me, I could practically hear their hearts cracking. And then I had a realization would define every molecule of my existence for the coming days: I would not be the next one to hurt my family. I couldn’t bring myself to tell them that I was also an addict, so I decided there was really only one option, something I had never done before, but had heard about from TV shows and online articles. I had to go cold turkey.

Because of how close James and I were, it was easy to get a few days to myself that I would need to completely detox. My family would simply think I was grieving. They were right, but only half so. That thought at the funeral put me into a mode of complete obsession, and I was determined to follow through with my plot.

***

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.