Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Beth Alvarado - How I Quit Heroin and Other Toxic Substances

How I Quit Heroin and Other Toxic Substances
Imagine turning your head and holding your arm out, as if for a blood test. You feel a slight prick, you loosen the tie, and then suddenly this warmth floods up, you feel a rush that begins at the base of your spine and surges up until it explodes in your head, like light. Then, for hours, you float in a bubble of warmth and well-being; dreams as vivid as movies drift before your eyes. This is why people like heroin.

Imagine you no longer feel like an ordinary girl, bland and vulnerable, but like a girl who is daring, an outsider, a risk-taker, one of the guys. This is why I tried it in the first place.

But why is a question junkies never ask. They know why. The question for a junkie, is why not? You have to have a very good reason to give up that rush. After all, you’ve come to love the ritual, even the smell of sulfur, the flame beneath the spoon. You love the liquid lightning that fills your veins and blossoms in your head. You love the dreams, more brilliant with color than anything you’ve seen in life: a car so red its edges are silver in the sunlight, poppies exploding into color, again and again and again, orange, purple, vermilion, the dark velvety center. And then the psychic numbness that envelops you for hours, where you have no worries, no fears, no anxieties, no guilt, no other desires.

So why is not the question. You may as well ask why people have sex—which, as we all know, can have as deadly side-effects as heroin.

I was sixteen when I started. Thin, thin, always dressed in jeans and a black t-shirt, hair long and wild, I imagined I was a bohemian. The rules didn’t apply to me. I didn’t have to attend school to get A’s and B’s. The year was 1970. Janis was still alive, I think, maybe even Morrison and Hendrix. The Civil Rights Bill was six years old. Watts had burned, so had Newark. John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy had all been killed. Vietnam was old news. The Cold War was simply a part of the landscape. We wanted out. Sometimes it seemed as if the world were falling apart. The center was not holding. We were kids, living in the borderlands of Arizona, in a town ringed by missiles. We couldn’t imagine a future. Instead, we shot dope. We ran it across the border. We were falling from idealism to despair. I’d fallen. Needle to the vein. My blond boyfriend from West Texas was threatening suicide and planes like dark predators were circling overhead.

By May of my twentieth year, I had not only grown up, I felt old. I had quit using every toxic substance I’d ever tried. This includes pot, hallucinogens, cocaine, speed and alcohol, none of which required any effort at all to quit, as well as the two that caused me difficulty, heroin and tobacco. I could claim that this makes me an expert, not only on addiction but on recovery, but I am ambivalent about everything: what constitutes addiction, whether physical addiction leads to psychological or visa versa, and whether or not people can be “cured.” Whether addiction is a disease—or a symptom. Part of me believes I was never addicted to anything—and that may be true. I started smoking at fourteen, for instance. Can I really say, that at twenty, I was addicted to nicotine? Likewise, even though I started using heroin at sixteen, I abstained for my entire senior year in high school—instead popping several Percodan every few hours. (My boyfriend, true to his Texan roots, was a Cowboy, but of the Drugstore variety.) Since I used opiates daily for only a few years of my life, was I truly an addict? Perhaps I was on the road to addiction and mercifully waylaid.

I have proof, at least, of physical need: I was cranky as hell whenever I tried to give up smoking and felt withdrawals whenever I tried to quit heroin. Yet physical withdrawals are simply the most obvious manifestation. Addiction is the absence of choice. To illustrate, when I was sixteen, I was sitting in a park when I realized I was out of cigarettes. Upon discovering that fact, I really wanted one—which meant I would have to stand up, walk a block home, scrounge for thirty-five cents (yes, thirty-five), walk two blocks to the discount store, and buy the cigarettes. (This not only gives you an idea of how lazy—or stoned—I was but of the oppressiveness of summer heat in Tucson.) At any rate, I realized that if I quit smoking, I could choose not to take the walk. What liberation! Ever since then, addiction, for me, has meant that a substance compels me to consume it. If I feel like I have to have it—even if, physically, I don’t—then I am addicted.

In some fundamental way, then, it makes little difference if the precious amber liquid is scotch in a glass or heroin in a syringe, if escape comes in a vial of cocaine or is provided by little pills in a prescription bottle. The underlying desire is the same. Perhaps each of us, given the right (or wrong) substance and the right (or wrong) set of circumstances, is a potential addict. After all, you don’t have to be an asthmatic to suffer an asthma attack; you simply have to be exposed to something that will trigger the reaction. And you never know what that something might be.

For this reason, I’ve never blamed my family. My parents were as typical of their WWII generation, with its alcohol use and repression, as I am of the Vietnam generation, with our drug use and penchant for openness. To be fair, my father would never have considered a few highballs a “problem” and my mother would insist that a stiff upper lip is an admirable quality. When I was coming of age, we thought psychedelics would liberate our minds. It never occurred to us that cocaine was dangerous; it certainly wasn’t thought to be addictive. And heroin? Well, they had lied to us about the dangers of every other drug, why should we believe them about this one?

But we should have. And perhaps because we didn’t, the Vietnam War helped spawn a heroin epidemic—at least that’s what they called it when use crossed the border from the ghettos and the barrios into the suburbs. Ironically, my husband, who is Mexican-American, didn’t use when he lived in the barrio; it was only later, after his parents moved the family into a white neighborhood, that he hung out with anyone who was doing drugs heavier than marijuana. All the guys we knew coming back from Nam were strung-out on China white. In the four years I was shooting dope, sixteen people I knew died of drug overdoses. Sixteen people just like me. Middle-class, white. Children of doctors, lawyers, and restaurant owners.

Heroin is pernicious, but whether that’s due to inherent properties of the drug or to the black market lifestyle, we may never know. I don’t suppose there are enough independently wealthy junkies for an accurate survey; I do suppose that bootleggers during Prohibition led equally unhealthy lives. At any rate, according to my brother-in-law, who has been in prison on drug charges three times and who is still on methadone maintenance, many of the (mostly white, middle-class) addicts we knew frequent the same clinic he does, still addicted nearly thirty years later. Only four of us, my husband and myself included, were able to quit in time to make “normal” lives for ourselves. Statistics are equally frightening: only one out of thirty-five addicts will stay clean and sober; some relapse after ten or fifteen years; most become alcoholics; in one study, of the 10% who had “recovered,” half were counted as not relapsing only because they had died. Death as a cure—imagine that! I fit the profile of the addict most likely to stay clean: young, female, addicted for under five years.

This suggests that the longer one uses, the more fierce the psychological addiction, yet we also assume that psychological factors—childhood trauma, history of family dependency, unhealthy living situations, poverty, etc.—make some of us more vulnerable in the first place. A chicken or the egg sort of cycle. Some research indicates that people who get addicted to opiates may already have a deficiency of dopamine in their brains, which predisposes them to addiction to substances like heroin. But whether you’re predisposed or not, if you use heroin with any regularity, you will get addicted because heroin takes over a natural function of brain chemistry: it replaces dopamine. When the heroin stops, no dopamine, your nerves are screaming. Physical addiction is simple. If you don’t do it, you experience pain; since you did it in the first place to alleviate or avoid pain, you just do it again. Basic Pavlovian theory. You know what cures you.

On the other hand, people who have abused drugs like metham-phetamine or cocaine, which stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain, are always left with a need to have that center stimulated. (Ecstasy, as I understand it, like Prozac, increases the amounts of serotonin in the brain and thus causes changes in brain chemistry, at least temporarily.) In other words, even when there is no physiological predisposition to addiction and no physical dependency, because the drug itself causes changes in the brain, those changes can create a strong psychological addiction—in the case of cocaine, to anything that will stimulate the pleasure center. Even sex. So far as I know, cocaine is not physically addictive, only psychologically, but, hey, monkeys will give up food, water, and sex for cocaine. Monkeys will die for cocaine.

No big surprise there. People die for cocaine. I once met a real estate developer who had lost everything, and he had quite a bit to lose, to that white powder. He said, “Cocaine is God’s way of telling you you make too much money.”

But back to the monkeys with monkeys on their backs: monkeys who have unlimited access to heroin gradually level out their use. They still eat, they still sleep, they still have sex. They simply do enough heroin to keep from going through withdrawals. This experiment, which I read about in the Stanford Alumna Magazine, was published in the mid-eighties, when cocaine was thought of as nose candy, something one might indulge in at cocktail parties. (Please pause for a moment to consider what that target audience might have been doing in its spare time.) Whatever else the experiment’s purpose, it did prove that there is no “just” to psychological addiction.

Physical addiction, no matter to what substance, seems to be the least of an addicts problems. There’s methadone for the junkie, Nicorette gum for the smoker. Drunks, speed freaks, crack heads and their brethren coke heads have no choice but to go cold, I guess—although researchers are experimenting with new drugs which affect serotonin levels and seem to reduce the addicts cravings. But even if you have to take the old-fashioned route and go cold, your body gets over it. People do kick. Some stay clean for years before going back. It’s the psychological pull, the craving, that’s so hard to overcome.

For some people, of course, addiction is a symptom of an underlying disease, clinically known as a dual disorder. For example, many schizophrenics or manic-depressives are addicts; prior to being diagnosed, they used (and became addicted to) illicit drugs in an attempt to balance out a brain chemistry that was naturally out of whack or had been thrown out by trauma. For the rest of us, though, the question is how do you liberate yourself from desire so intense it rules your life? I can answer only for myself.


I found this article while I was surfing the internet the other day. I think that I did a search for “heroin addiction” at LookSmart’s FURL site. This was just one of the many links my search produced. Normally before reprinting an article, especially an article of such personal and sensitive nature, I attempt to contact the website that the article originated from. Unfortunately when I got to the web site that stores this piece of writing, I could not find any sort of contact info. I’m hoping that perhaps someone from sporkpress might stumble across this entry and contact me. Until I am told otherwise, I plan on keeping the link and this portion of her article online for others to read as I think that it is an important one as well as one that many of us most definitely will be able to relate.


Marc said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marc said...

There is so, so, so much truth here. It is really a very accurate representation of the reality of heroin addiction.

Those first few paragraphs really captured the essence of heroin addiction. That intense longing, needing and unending craving for that unique place where heroin takes us.

Thank you for reprinting this. As well as much credit to the author.

Anonymous said...

A brilliant recount of heroin addiction -- horros and beauty both.
Thanks for posting it here.