My heart pounded as the rough, beige powder raced through a straw, into my nostril. Heroin—my first hit since 1999.
It was late morning on a weekday in February. Coronavirus was scary enough to crash the stock market but hadn’t yet compelled us to hole up and batten down the proverbial hatches. My wife was out with a friend, our kids were at school, and I was pacing around the house, a bitter mix of snot and coagulated dope dripping down the back of my throat. Would it displace the rampart of buprenorphine on my opioid receptors?
A warm, familiar, everything’s alright feeling enveloped me—like a moment on a pristine spring day when you forget winter ever happened. No dirty melting snowbanks on the side of the road, only crocuses and buds on tree branches.
Relief was fleeting, quickly giving way to a deluge of guilt and shame and searing self-hatred—feelings I had inevitably internalized through society’s stigmatization of the drug.
Those feelings got so intense that I narcanned myself as punishment. For the first minute or two, nothing happened. I was unwrapping another spray when the dose kicked in. Sweating, gulping saliva, my head weighing 50 pounds. I collapsed onto the couch in the fetal position and lay there, debating—as if I hadn’t already decided my next move.
The dope wasn’t going to flush itself down the toilet, and I certainly wasn’t going to do that, either. I opened the bag again, spilled a hit onto the glossy white surface of my desk, and up my nose it went.
For three days after I started using again, I was the best version of myself.
One gram had been delivered to my house by the world’s biggest drug mule: the United States Postal Service. I ordered it from a dark-web market—M.L. Lanzilotta recently described them for Filter—which I happened to be researching for another article. But honestly, I knew my subconscious intention when I started poking around that portion of the internet. I saw this coming a mile away.
For three days after I started using again, I was the best version of myself: happy, funny, inquisitive; loving and tender to my wife; present around my kids. Those traits had gradually evaporated during the preceding 18 months.
I’d lost my job at a private equity firm—not long after publicly “outing” myself as a person recovering from heroin dependency. My employer forbade everyone at the company from talking to me. After I lost my job, the financial anxiety alone was crippling. Isolated and stressed, I fell into a deep depression. Depression is pain. Heroin kills pain. It’s that simple.
From the first hit I ever took, at 16, heroin was like the medicine in that movie, Awakenings. DeNiro is a veritable vegetable until Robin Williams shows up with the special sauce and then…he’s alive! Lots of things about using heroin were a serious nuisance—being physically dependent on an illegal substance forced me to constantly hide what I was doing, amid the ever-looming threat of withdrawal.
Heroin itself, however, was never a problem for me. I’ve smoked pot a handful of times, got drunk once, never took a hallucinogen. I hate the feeling of being fucked up. I relish the feeling of being content. Heroin does that like nothing else. I was what you’d call “functional.” I built a successful career on dope, but couldn’t accomplish much of anything when I was off it.
Still, I quit heroin because of the external stuff that went with it. I quit a few months before I met my wife, and then coasted on the newness of love (and the scalding-hot sex) for a few years. But after a while, it still felt like there was something missing. Bupe, which I started taking in 2008, kept me going, but there ain’t nothing like the real thing.
Nobody knew about my slips—short-lived, with other opioids, between 2000 and 2008—until 2017, almost a decade after I got on bupe.
I shared them, very publicly, around when Trump was getting ready to declare opioid addiction a national health emergency. There were articles everywhere and so much misinformation. I’d lost many friends to overdose.
Overwhelmed with survivor’s guilt, and guilt about hiding my truth, I decided to go in the other direction and be completely honest, in the hope that my experience and perspective would do some good in the world. Rehab didn’t work for me. AA was bullshit. Heroin is not a recreational drug. Buprenorphine works. I started writing articles and got into public speaking, signed with a hotshot literary agent and wrote a book.
When I told my wife the truth—after 15 years together—she was sympathetic and understanding, not the least bit mad. In a way, why would she be? She’d been around for my ups and downs, and knew that I used to use heroin. But she, like everyone else in my life, believed I got “clean” in rehab, at 19, and that that was it.
As each hit started to wear off, I’d worry about when my wife would start to wonder why, all of a sudden, I was so cheerful.
It was like the key to a riddle once she knew the truth. She knew I was the best version of myself on opioids, too.
And she was cool when I first got laid off. We had money, and my agent was going to sell the book, no problem.
But she and I had been fighting for a few months before my dark-web foray. Just small things, that would escalate into complaints that I didn’t make her feel special anymore, and that I wasn’t present around the kids. The worst part was, I knew she was right.
I kept that gram of dope in my pocket with a small piece of a plastic drinking straw. I snuck hits in the bathroom every few hours. That wasn’t noticeable. What was suspicious was, I was on. Even though my circumstances hadn’t changed and the world was besieged with coronavirus.
As each hit started to wear off, I’d worry about when she would start to wonder why, all of a sudden, I was so cheerful.
Before the first gram got to the house, I was determined to use it until it was gone and then go back to bupe, no excuses. And I would only snort—no shooting, as had been my preferred consumption method for years. As my stash waned, my resolve went with it. By the time I was down to the last four or five hits, which were getting progressively bigger and more frequent, it finally occurred to me to order more, so I turned to other online vendors.
As the new packages arrived, it quickly became clear that the initial vendor was the only guy selling real, actual heroin (and sending complimentary fentanyl test-strips to boot). At 44, I’m old enough to remember when you didn’t have to worry about fentanyl in your dope, but I understand why dealers gravitated toward a high-potency/low-volume synthetic at a time when America’s appetite for painkillers is so voracious.
As a parent, I wasn’t going to risk my life for fucking fentanyl. Chemical taste, short legs, no warmth or euphoria. So I ordered six more grams from the dealer selling real heroin. At that point, quarantine was on and I’d pretty much made up my mind to ride it out in style.
For a few days, I fantasized about getting my wife to endorse my choice. I was cooking gourmet meals twice a day, washing dishes, doing laundry, tending to the kids’ needs, monitoring all the home-schooling business, being affectionate. How could she not like that?
Maybe I’d bring it up casually. You’ve noticed how happy I’ve been, right? Well, guess what!
But I knew it wouldn’t be that simple. Our kids are 10 and 14. They knew I had a history with drugs and that I’d quit, and that that was good. Then I’d brought heroin into our fucking house. It would never fly.
So I made a new plan. Make the switch back to bupe. Then tell her. When it’s over.
It’s a good thing I’d kept that fentanyl, because now, I needed it. I dumped a pile on my desk and snorted it.
I’ve written about bupe enough that you’d think I’d know my shit, but my 2008 induction occurred about a month after I had last used opioids. For some reason, I didn’t realize the precipitated withdrawals would be a problem if I had just snuck in a few days—ok, make that two weeks—of heroin use.
When the first 2 mg buprenorphine tablet started kicking in, holy fuck. I put it in my mouth around midnight when I got in bed, and fell asleep. (I have a stockpile of 2 mg Subutex—long story). I woke up at 1:30 am, drenched in sweat, ice picks stabbing my stomach from the inside, nose running, shaking—the whole nine. Of course my wife woke up and asked what was wrong. I jumped out of bed and went to my office. (I never do shit like that).
It’s a good thing I’d kept that fentanyl, because now, I needed it. I dumped a pile on my desk and snorted it. In that moment, I figured it’d be better if the fentanyl killed me than to continue with the precipitated withdrawals.
When my wife came in, I told her what was happening and begged her not to get mad. Please—help me get through this. Then you can kill me. To my shock but, really, not necessarily surprise, she sat with me and held me as the opposing chemicals duked it out on my opioid receptors.
“Are you sure you’re not sick sick? What if you have coronavirus?”
“See how much I’m sweating?”
“It’ll stop. And my nose will stop running. Watch. Give it a minute.”
Sure enough, the sweating miraculously stopped. Then I explained the progression of events and laid bare the guilt and shame and told her that, despite all the therapy and buprenorphine, I was still a scared little boy who needed heroin to feel safe in the world.
I swore I’d get back on bupe but there was a problem. If I waited for regular withdrawal, the kids would see me sick and worry about coronavirus. I did some research online and discovered the “Bernese Method,” and made some calls in the morning to learn about microdose induction. It’s a method that Elizabeth Brico recently reported on for Filter.
I embarked on this—as is not recommended—without medical supervision. As the first crumb of bupe dissolved, I felt optimistic. But my home-made methodology didn’t actually eliminate precipitated withdrawal. It was more like a punch of micro-precipitated withdrawal with each microdose, which I dampened with dope. It required a lot more dope than usual, and I didn’t feel any of the euphoria. It was very expensive. But it worked, and my kids didn’t see me sick, and that was priceless.
Ten days later, on 12mg of bupe, I went 24 hours without heroin, and didn’t experience any withdrawal. It was over.
Clearly, the life circumstances and psychology that compelled me to use again are still issues.
I told a few friends, all of whom were understanding but scolded me for putting my life at risk. Some were horrified by the idea of my writing an article about it. But the point of everything I’ve been doing is to tell the truth about opioid experiences. I’m not the least bit concerned about people finding out that I slipped—except that my daughter has a knack for seeing everything I do online and I’d hate for her to read this the wrong way, hence the pseudonym. I’ll tell her when she’s ready.
Clearly, the life circumstances and psychology that compelled me to use again are still issues. But I am incredibly grateful for my wife’s understanding and compassion. Though I stand by everything positive I’ve said about heroin, I still wish I never tried it in the first place. I wish I didn’t feel like I need it to be at my best. I wish I wasn’t tethered to anything—heroin, bupe or the glasses I started wearing after my vision got crappy.
For reasons that are about the societal consequences and risks of heroin, rather than the properties of heroin itself, I know bupe is the right option for me. Hopefully, this stretch—in its fourth day at the time of writing—lasts longer than my previous record of 12 years.
Photograph by Filter.