There exists a common misconception that if a person uses illicit drugs, all of their problems stem from their drug use. Quitting is framed as a panacea. Naturally, this is a gross oversimplification at best. The last few months of my own life have made this all the more clear to me.
Over the past year, I’ve been moving away from using drugs. One factor is that now that I’ve finally found a sleeping medication I can safely take on a regular basis, I no longer rely on illicitly acquired opioids to sleep through the night. Being able to medically transition has also helped, by making my default level of anxiety and distress far less intense.
I was never addicted to drugs. I always maintained control over my use. From the very start, I took breaks, though these breaks were often quite miserable due to my sleep troubles and various traumas—which were another reason for my using heroin in the first place.
This isn’t to say that my drug use didn’t come with downsides. The price certainly caused issues for me. This was one of the primary reasons I took breaks, even though I was much less functional when doing so; I needed to prevent myself from spending more than I could afford by keeping my tolerance down. And despite being as careful as possible, buying drugs from the dark web and utilizing harm reduction practices, I was not immune from risks. I experienced some physical ill-effects due to prohibition’s impact on supply and the associated difficulty, at times, of obtaining sterile injecting equipment.
My attempt to fight stigma had a heavy personal cost.
Social stigma certainly harmed me, too. I “came out” about my use to everyone in my life and beyond, through YouTube vlogs and a series of articles. My attempt to fight stigma had a heavy personal cost. I was trying to combat negative stereotypes, but many people made clear that they saw me as eccentric at best and irresponsible at worst. People who didn’t even know me assumed that I must be lying when I called myself functional. Few people, I found, wanted to work with someone who openly used heroin. Strangers insulted me online, which occasionally caused me to despair, sometimes to dangerous degrees.
Phasing opioids out of my life, now that I have reliable sleep meds, was not anything I did purposefully or intentionally. Rather, it just… happened. The breaks between periods of use become longer and longer. At some point in late 2021, I didn’t bother going back to using because the potential issues that went with it didn’t seem worth the trouble.
This wasn’t as big a deal for me as you might imagine. Unlike the lads from Trainspotting, I never considered opioids to be the best feeling in the world. I found exercise significantly more pleasing. Sex, too, made for a more enjoyable diversion than shooting up.
Instead of using drugs to escape the pain of my past, to forget the abusive relationships and the involuntary commitments and the sexual assault, I poured my time into writing fiction. Social distancing in my childhood bedroom, I spent whole days in front of my computer typing.
This new occupation soon took on unhealthy aspects. I neglected hygiene and relationships. I failed to reply to text messages or answer phone calls, leading me to fall out of contact with most of my friends. I wrote from the moment I awoke to the moment I went to sleep, leaving time for nothing more. I managed to pump out a number of manuscripts in this manner, the majority of which I never finished.
Miraculously, one of my few complete projects, a historical fiction novel narrated by an autistic girl, somehow caught the eye of a manager, who now represents me. My near-addictive relationship with story-spinning was thus rewarded.
When high, I could do other things. I could maintain relationships and attend events. Now, my attempts to escape take up the majority of my time.
Still, I couldn’t help but feel that it had become more disruptive than my drug use ever was. I wrote partly out of a desire to create, to build something, but mostly because I wanted to avoid being bothered by the past. If I don’t divert myself, I find myself ruminating endlessly on painful incidents. During my opioid-using days, I managed to suppress these memories, keeping myself in a calm and dreamy state. But now I revisit them constantly, albeit through the lens of fictionalized situations based on my experiences. I mull them over in my mind, dissecting what I can remember, assessing it from different angles, trying to understand the effect it had on me psychologically.
Quitting heroin, in short, has removed some inconveniences but not solved my problems. I still feel as haunted as the protagonist of some dreary old gothic novel, now dealing more directly with my inner turmoil. When high, I could do other things. I could maintain relationships and attend events. Now, my attempts to escape take up the majority of my time. I’m far more antisocial. I am chilly and gruff, particularly with my family. The closest of my remaining friends has expressed concern, though he insists that he’d rather I write compulsively than use drugs that I could overdose on. I both agree and don’t.
I haven’t been able to handle Christmas since I was 16. That year, I spent the winter break in a mental health hospital after reacting poorly to a medication I’d been prescribed, leaving me confused and self-harming. During this time, I had a meltdown (as an autistic person, I experience this when I’m overwhelmed emotionally). The nurses, who had no experience dealing with autistic patients, failed to distract me—something that would’ve calmed me down instantly—and instead locked me in the ward’s Quiet Room. When this failed to soothe me, they gave me a chemical restraint that caused me to lose about 24 hours of memory. Every year since, I have dealt with the dreaded holiday by hiding or getting high.
Since I didn’t want to use, and had temporarily run out of the energy to write, I ended up spending most of the week of this past Christmas studying Latin. I read from Orberg’s Lingua Latina per se Illustrata while listening to the audiobook. I listened to some Latinist YouTuber read Ovid and Virgil for hours upon hours.
I didn’t manage to interact with my family, because doing so would distract me from my “studies” and cause me to remember why I loathed the holidays. On heroin I would’ve been able to politely join in, making small talk and behaving ordinarily. But given that I’d long since lost my tolerance, I opted against buying drugs. I wasn’t going to risk death to make my family happy.
I got through it. But looking back at my Christmas-avoidance strategy helped me to recognize the similar roles that months of writing obsessively and years of using heroin had played in my life.
These issues could yet be addressed, but for now, abstinence has only served to make the wounds raw and painful again.
Perhaps this year I will finally work up the nerve to seek formal treatment for trauma. Although I am already in therapy for the purpose of receiving letters to allow me to transition medically (both surgeons and insurance require documentation from a mental health professional), I don’t yet feel entirely comfortable speaking openly with my therapist. I’ve had too many unpleasant experiences with incompetent or hurtful mental health professionals to really trust her, and these have weighed, too, against my seeking further help.
Either way, I want to be clear that phasing out my opioid use hasn’t solved any of the underlying issues that led me to use in the first place. These issues could yet be addressed, but for now, abstinence has only served to make the wounds raw and painful again.
I plan to remain abstinent from opioids for a number of practical reasons, including, unfortunately, my chances of establishing a career. I am able to abstain and have reason to, so I will. But many of the factors that cause me to abstain are the products of a society that creates barriers to health care and hates drug users. Pressuring people to quit drugs is fundamentally wrong, as well as likely to fail—particularly when nothing is done to alleviate psychological or socio-economic circumstances that may have led a person to use in the first place. Quitting drugs didn’t fix my life, though finding alternative coping mechanisms did allow me to quit drugs.
Photograph by Eliot Phillips via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0