I Chose Functional Heroin Use. Here’s How It Works for Me.

    Recovery from addiction is different for everyone. In my case, abstinence from heroin didn’t work. Neither did medication.

    Anonymous meetings, which often felt like an excuse to tell War Stories, just gave me cravings. Also, I’m too scientifically-minded to believe in a Higher Power. And I often fought with my so-called sponsor. For me, Narcotics Anonymous was merely a place to debate religion-related theories, not a cure or something useful.   

    Suboxone, I found, took away my ability to feel joy; Subutex kept me from sleeping for nights on end. And as for methadone…well, I couldn’t wake up in time for any of the nearby clinics.

    So none of the mainstream methods worked for me for more than a few weeks or months. I’d spend far too much time mopingsobbing hysterically, missing dopeand rarely completing assignments on time. Freelance writers can’t afford to be gloomy, depressed wrecks. If I don’t write a certain number of articles each week, I can’t buy groceries or pay my rent.

    I began to lose money and eat unhealthily. Eventually, I realized that I’d been happier and healthier when I still used.

    That’s why, at age 19 and after more than a year of trying to quit, I stopped trying to force myself to be sober. Instead, I decided to focus on staying as healthy and stable as possible whilst continuing to inject heroin. I’m now 20. So far my plan has worked. People may choose to dismiss my story because of my age, but most drug use, of any kind, is non-problematic. In my case, I don’t just use heroin for fun. It serves a purpose.

    Opioids made me truly happy for the first time in my life.

    Ever since preschool I’ve suffered from insomnia, fits of depression and the occasional meltdown. The stress of living with a mentally ill mother (she suffers from severe anxiety and occasional delusions) only made matters worse.

    I spent most of my childhood being ferried from doctor to doctor. None seemed to know what was wrong with me. Most recommended a variety of heavy medications. At different points since elementary school, I’ve taken everything from antipsychotics to antidepressants, lithium to Latuda. Some of them made me sick, weak or confused. I once missed three months of school when one drug (Abilify) gave me a movement disorder called tardive dyskinesia. This peculiar condition caused my face to twitch and my legs to spasm; I couldn’t navigate stairs or walk far without assistance.

    It took 18 years for all of these alleged professionals to realize I had autismnot a personality disorder. That means my brain’s built differently. I wasn’t sick after all. Of course the meds weren’t helping, so they decided to wean me off of them.

    I’m still not exactly sure why I first decided to try opioids at the age of 18. Boredom, maybe? Was I trying to cure my insomnia with a soporific drug? Or maybe I’d realized that the soothing substance would help me deal with my then-boyfrienda 33-year-old creep whom my parents somehow seemed to like, and who rapidly transitioned from teasing to abusive. Then again, perhaps I needed help ignoring my mother’s bizarre, hysterical rants.

    Worn library copies of Fight Club, Trainspotting and Murder on the Orient Express began to reek of scorched foil.

    Whether I was seeking peace and silence, survival in a fraught environment, or a “cure” for what I felt was my madness, I immediately discovered one thing: Opioids made me truly happy for the first time in my life.

    Pure joy wasn’t something I’d ever known. That’s why I ended up spending most of that summer—my first post-high school—smoking heroin and reading paperbacks. Worn library copies of Fight Club, Trainspotting and Murder on the Orient Express began to reek of scorched foil.

    The dope and pills seemed harmless and benignespecially compared to all the drugs I’d been prescribed. They merely made me tired in a cheerful way, and took away the worry.

    In hindsight, now that I know more about addiction and dependence (two very different things, contrary to popular belief), I feel embarrassed. Stupid, even. Looking back, I was clearly physically dependant after the first two months. And if I hadn’t used on a daily basis for that initial period, I might not’ve gotten stuck.

    But addiction just didn’t seem likely back then. After all, I wasn’t injecting. Smoking heroin seemed so trivial. And it kept me from feeling badly or getting upset when my boyfriend taunted or groped me. When my mother screamed for no reason or threatened to kill herself, I didn’t cry. Dope was a buffer—protecting me from toxic “friends” and other problems. I stopped having meltdowns. I no longer wanted to die.

    Paradoxically, I felt wonderfully free while using. Though I soon began to feel odd if I tried to take a break from smoking. Also, chronic opioids cause severe constipation. By the end of the summer I couldn’t even eat a small salad without sharp, sudden stomach pains. That’s why, near the end of August, I went cold turkey for the first time For a week I felt nauseous, rarely slept and cried often. Compared to future detoxes it wasn’t so bad.

    Could I use heroin in a way that was sustainable for me—one that maximized benefits while minimizing risks and harms?

    As my life evolved—taking college classes, cutting my ex out of my life, moving out of the family home, beginning my journalism career—heroin, which I soon began injecting, was always a key factor.

    My many attempts at abstinence—through inpatient rehab, outpatient rehab, NA, AA, going traveling to avoid my dealer, replacing heroin with ballet or painting—ended in relapse. The medications worked better, but none fully replaced what heroin gave me, and the side effects often prevented me from getting anything done.

    It was when I began reading about harm reduction that an alternative idea began to form. What if, despite the stigma against heroin and the negatives it brought to my life, abandoning this drug didn’t have to be my goal? Could I instead use heroin in a way that was sustainable for me—one that maximized benefits while minimizing risks and harms?

    Productivity wouldn’t be a problem. By then, I’d learned to write and work while high. I could even attend ballet classes if I took a small enough dose. I also found that heroin isn’t too expensive, even though I work as a freelance writer and filmmaker, a far-from-lucrative career path. Mercifully, my habit has never cost me more than $10 or less per day, adding up to about $250 per month.

    I began to write heroin into my monthly budget, and focused on being exceedingly careful. Usually I’d buy a few bags on the way home from Trader Joe’s, near the start of the week. Stocking up on a Monday is far more efficient than scoring every day or so.

    Monetizing some of my hobbiesmostly my upcycled bottle art and pop culture paintingsmade things even easier. It helps that I’m not much of a spender anyway, buying affordable groceries and rarely shopping for clothing. My heroin doesn’t cost more than certain friends’ alcohol or movie habits. I can comfortably continue using and avoid going into debt.

    Heroin itself, I began to realize, is not the problem. It’s just a chemical that happens to be very likableas well as illegal and deadly if ingested in vast amounts or combined with other substances. People talk about heroin as they might discuss a dangerous beast. It’s the “worst drug of all,” they say. But is it really?

    Remember that “heroin-assisted treatment,” through which healthcare providers give patients regular doses of pharmaceutical-grade heroin, is available in a number of countries around the world, with excellent health outcomes.

    Why do some people with opioid addictions becoming dysfunctional? Often, because they run out of money and begin doing desperate things for dope. A person who is dependent on heroin but can afford the drug, safeguard their supply and remain healthy will probably be ok.

    In an environment where heroin is illegal, you need to take many precautions to protect yourself. Finding ways to obtain and use heroin that reduce your chances of being arrested is an obvious one—and a privilege far more available to some populations than others.

    In health terms, testing your product for the fentanyl that the illicit market encourages is highly advisable, and using with another trusted person present is less risky than using alone. It’s also important to acquire naloxone, and to avoid sharing or reusing needles.

    Injecting drugs in an unregulated environment is risky. If I make a mistake, I could develop an infection or suffocate to death. That’s why I work to take every precaution—including making sure that my general health is as good as possible. I try to eat well, cooking meals with fresh ingredients. I eat fruit and veggies, as well as taking over-the-counter fiber supplements, to combat opioid-induced constipation. I try to avoid salt and processed foodsmy veins already get beat up enough, I figure.

    You can’t let heroin become your wife and your life and your everythingwe don’t have to live in a Velvet Underground song (thank God).

    I also exercise almost every day, staying in shape through daily walks and ballet-inspired workouts. Looking after my body helps my circulatory system and decreases my risk of getting sick. I’ve actually gained muscle since shifting my attitude from “must quit, no matter the cost” to “staying as healthy as possible whilst using makes the most sense.”  

    But physical health is only a part of it. You also can’t let heroin become your wife and your life and your everythingwe don’t have to live in a Velvet Underground song (thank God). Some old-fashioned common sense applies“All things in moderation and moderation in all things,” as my father likes to say. Letting your life revolve around any one thing isn’t healthy.

    So unrelated hobbies really help. I dance, collage, read, cook, paint, embroider and write in my spare time. My art occasionally references heroin, sure, but I try not to become obsessed. Yes, I’m dependent on diacetylmorphine, but that doesn’t mean I let it run my life.

    In that spirit, it’s also important to have friends who don’t use. It isn’t fun or healthy to only hang out with friends who do. Variety makes life much more interesting. None of my roommates do H, and I feel like that helps to keep me from going too far.

    Being dependant on heroin, unlike my early honeymoon with the drug, certainly isn’t enjoyable or pleasant. It’s a damned nuisance, in fact. I’m not here to recommend unprescribed opioid use to anyone. But I have learned to live with using heroin in a way that makes sense to me.

    Large numbers of people who use heroin do not in anyway resemble those “junkie” stereotypes, and we need to remember that. And “recovery”—in which I do include myselflooks different for each and every one of us. And that’s okay.


    Photo by Zachary Drucker via The Gender Spectrum Collection 

    • M.L. Lanzillotta

      M.L. Lanzillotta is a writer located in the Washington, DC metro area. She’s the author of a number of novels. In her spare time she paints, dances, directs, acts, cooks and embroiders.

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