Post-Heroin: How or Why I Became a Writer

By Zachary Siegel 05/22/16

Writing has become my life’s activity, and every once in a while I realize I’m living a life I thought was unattainable.

Post-Heroin: How or Why I Became a Writer

When I moved from the Twin Cities back to Chicago, where I grew up, I noticed that upon meeting new people they were prone to asking, “What do you do?” My unemployed friend who is not seeking work (but recently enrolled in a coding boot camp) also noticed this introductory platitude, about which he anecdotally agrees occurs frequently in Chicago, as opposed to other, smaller, laidback cities. 

There’s a whole sizing up scenario that follows the question. My friend doesn’t do anything for a living so when someone asks him, “What do you do?” And he replies, “Nothing,” it baffles the asker. His “nothing” gives the asker nothing to go off of. The asker is faced with the inability to heuristically situate him within a model of what type of person he is based on his non-career. The conversation usually stops, my friend told me, because he doesn’t care to ask about whatever crappy job the asker holds, who, if I’m cynical—and I amonly asked in the first place so he or she could drone on about his or her own job: social media strategist?

If I’m asked the job question I usually don’t tell people that I write stuff. There’s good reason to avoid the ensuing questions: what do you write about? For whom? A blog? A dick thing to say would be: Google me. I don’t say that but my thoughts are not above traveling down that line. Googlio meus ergo sum: I can be Google’d therefore I am. 

I am not sure when exactly but at some point during my post-drug addled early 20s era, I did become a person who writes stuff for a living. My meanderings are a speck among the 24-hour blitz of content bombarding your feed. Writing digitally comforts me in that it mimics the way I see life in the non-virtual world: small and insignificant. 

So I don’t take it for granted that you’re interested in my so-called career and me. Most of the time, I’m not even interested. But there is one thing that interests us all, I think, and that is how we move from being whoever we were while hurting ourselves and others in addiction to how it is we became who we are now. Work, perhaps in a Marxian way, may help us understand how we move through time, how what we do reflects upon who we’re becoming. 

Marx wrote, “The animal is immediately one with its life activity. It is not distinct from that activity; it is that activity.” I did more than a decent amount of nothing before kicking heroin. According to Marx, then, I was nothing. 

In the years leading up to a lengthy stint of treatment, I resigned to couch-life, e.g., several heroin injections per day set to the rhythms of god-awful television. Mostly, I watched people cook food for sport—the guy who gorges for a living, whose leather jacket doesn’t quite fit right by the end of each episode. I watched these shows despite my total disinterest in actual food and the process of eating it. I preferred the simulation of food to the real thing. Much the same way, I think, people who watch a lot of porn become bored with real sex. 

Couch-life, to state the obvious, is totally insular. The people I saw on the day-to-day—aside from my friends on the corner with an endless supply of tiny-baggies—were flat images, clad in starched white chef garb, surgically piping icing onto a cake no one will eat. 

Per the American maxim of being young and vital, couch-life is not a life one can brag about, which is as good a reason as any to commit to it. 

Per my post-treatment aftercare plan, I moved into a halfway house in St. Paul, Minnesota, a Midwestern hodgepodge sustaining gold rush-like conditions—only there is no gold, just oodles of sober houses and people strongly recommended to live in them. In fact, around 2007, there were so many sober houses opening in St. Paul that a citywide moratorium was issued on all new sober living quarters. A regulation soon followed stating there must be a 330-foot distance between all recovery-related homes, which basically amounts to one per block. There are thousands of blocks in St. Paul. 

Aside from abstaining, the second most important rule to abide by in these houses is to obtain stable employment. Couch-life is objectionable in recovery, as it is within the broader ethos of American culture. People don’t actually care what you do for a living, but it better be something, anything. A smart guy I know told me his definition of recovery is that upon being “recovered,” one should be indistinguishable—economically, materially, hygienically, etc.—from any or everybody else. If that’s the yardstick, those who watch House Hunters or Hannibal in gray sweatpants all day are easily distinguishable from those who get jobs and do things. But in fairness, so long as you’re paying rent (typically $500-$600 per month) and perpetually looking for work, you won’t get the boot. But if you do get kicked out, there is another house on the next block that will take you. Anecdotally, it’s those that have families willing to fork their rent that are liable succumb to couch-life, or sloth in general.

Job prospects for the newly sober were plenty in St. Paul. Not far from my new residence was an abject superstructure containing five Caribou Coffees, two Auntie Anne’s Pretzels, four Sunglass Huts, and two Panda Expresses. A hollowed out monolith, the inside of which maintains the bodily ideal temperature of 70 degrees whether it be spring, summer, winter or fall. There is a store called Minnesot-ah! The fact that there is only one Cinnabon remains to this day a goddamned travesty. 

I applied to work at Barnes & Noble because I like the smell. There is only one Barnes & Noble in all of Mall of America. I didn’t get the job—but had there been two Barnes & Nobles? 

A friend of mine with whom I was in treatment, who had gotten out a month before me, received the same aftercare plan: sober living, employment. He found work at a small, very old Jewish deli run by a small, very old Jewish couple. He asked me if I wanted a job, and I was smitten to work at a Jewish deli that’s not inside Mall of America. Note: there are no Jewish delis in Mall of America. Sadly, if you’re not in New York or Montreal, Jewish delis have by and large devolved into chain sandwich shops that don’t even slice their own meat. 

I got the job at the deli, not because I was sort of raised Jewish—though that helped. The owners have a long history of hiring recently sober people who’ve transplanted to St. Paul. Two of the senior deli workers, in fact, managed sober houses. If you ordered, say, a pound of pastrami, odds are a newly sober whippersnapper with nil experience operating a very sharp, fast rotating blade was slicing the meat. My vegetarian friend who was also sober once cut himself and fainted. 

My deli hours were cushy—9 a.m. to 3 p.m. five days a week. Down the street from the deli was a coffeehouse called Quixotic. They only made single serve pour-overs. The only flavor additive was a vanilla syrup which they made in-house. No Frankensteinian pumpkin spice or cups of catastrophe, simulating the changing of seasons, pumping tastes of autumn. 

At Quixotic, I’d sit in the same black leather chair positioned in the corner furthest from the door, my back to the open, mostly grey space. There, I’d write from roughly 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., post-deli. And on my days off, I’d be at Quixotic from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., keeping up with the deli hours. That’s how I still view writing. You’re clocking in; only I can be lying in bed like I am right now. It’s very bad for your posture. I own a slouch and my girlfriend pleasantly reminds me of this. 

I didn’t find my black leather chair at the perfect place to write in and begin submitting stories willy-nilly. That came close to a year later. Initially, I tried to write a novella. It was something like a newer iteration of Camus’ The Stranger, only the hero (not Meursault but close) was addicted to heroin and obsessed with consequentialist logic. His world was one without ambiguity until really bad things happened to him. In a few months I wrote some fifty thousand words and finished the story. It sucked so I scrapped it. It might be floating on a Google drive somewhere, sucking up a megabyte or two. 

I then took to writing shorter stories, fiction still. At night I’d read and re-read Kurt Vonnegut’s Welcome to the Monkey House and during the day I’d try to mimic some of my (still) favorite shorts. I learned a lot about form during this time, but what I wrote still sucked. A friend who was not sober but who also worked at the deli turned me on to shorts by George Saunders and David Foster Wallace. I picked those books up to read and study. I absolutely failed when it came to mimicking.  

With relative ease, months went by while living in the sober house, working at the deli, and writing at Quixotic. My routine of deli and writing, I think, stabilized my day to day. A few months without opiates turned into six months, turned into a year, writing everyday, or becoming one with my activities, according to Marx. The majority of my friends were people in recovery during this time. I was 12-step-involved, too, but that began to fade as I mostly hung around my own version of step 10: daily writing that devolved into inventories, circling the futility of self-analysis. However, I became adept at putting thoughts to paper, unfiltered. 

My mode at Quixotic was to write very fast without editing. Once in awhile I’d come upon a nugget while drowning out my interior monologue. I’d stop and re-read, sometimes liking the way it sounded. I usually like what I write for an hour or two—any more time passes and it hurts my stomach to re-read. 

In order to write you have to read, is what I was told. Most of my writing, by this time in 2013, was drug drenched self-reflection. Hence, I read The Fix a lot. I kept my eyes peeled for the old regulars, Maia Szalavitz, Jeff Deeney, Nic Sheff. They wrote reports and narratives, used lived-experience to debunk (or cement) the tropes of addiction. Whatever I thought The Fix was back then, I knew wanted to contribute. 

My first “pitch” to The Fix was in the summer of 2013. It’s common practice when reaching out to editors to offer a couple sentences, a nut graph, maybe a hypothetical headline. What I did instead was send a two-thousand word, spastic diary entry that detailed the exploits of living in a St. Paul sober house. Twin bed. Dudes everywhere. Smells. Nobody does the dishes. Smells. Food goes missing. Sound and fury signifying nothing. 

I found this “story” in an old email that eventually sparked my first correspondence with editors at The Fix. The writing was so lousy I could only stomach to read the first paragraph. But the then editor-in-chief, to my surprise, responded saying I showed potential and maybe, if I were to actually pitch a story, they could use it. 

So I went to my sister, who has had stints editing at NYC fashion magazines. She helped me edit and oversee my first real story, which was published in the summer of 2013. I cannot make it through the first paragraph without my stomach aching. 

One cold Minnesota night at Quixotic I saw a guy next to me writing in the unmistakable format of a script or play. I was reading Kafka stories. Not sure who made the first move but we began talking and it turned out he was an editor at a local lit mag called Revolver. We talked, and he told me to submit. To my dismay, they published one of my attempts at fiction. It’s the only piece of fiction I’ve ever had published.  

Both these stories were live on the Internet just weeks apart. I felt something that I’ve heard other writers describe. It’s a high of sorts, that I know other writers get, because why else would we continue to slouch and self-induce arthritis? It became an activity that made me feel something I’d been chasing, that sadly, and with all due respect, working at a deli was not providing. 

Now, it’s almost 2016, and I still write stuff for the Internet. What’s retroactively unique about my trajectory is that my writing for a living did not begin until I kicked opiates. During the opiate years, I was a writer who didn’t write. Kafka, in a letter to his trusted editor, Max Brod, wrote, “A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity."

So does writing ward off the needle? is the next logical line to trace. The two, for me, are at least highly correlated, inversely, but I’m not one to drape cause and effect over the world. Shit’s too complicated. But, in the four years away from opiates, I’ve been writing the entire time. It’s become my life’s activity, and every once in a while I realize I’m living a life I thought was unattainable.

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.