Heroin is my God.
For me, sticking a needle into my vein, watching the blood register inside the cylinder, pulling the trigger, feeling the hot liquid moving up my arm, racing towards my heart, just waiting for the rush to explode the top of my brain with euphoria is better than sex.
But I wasn’t born a junkie. It wasn’t my goal in life to become one either. I was twelve or thirteen when I smoked my first joint of marijuana. I was a normal kid, did what everybody did back then, got drunk on Boone’s Farm apple wine at thirteen, puked and was sick for three days.
Now, I get dope-sick and I turn violent. I’m petrified what I’ll do. How far I’ll go. There is a voice inside my head that won’t go away. Constantly yelling, “Lie, steal, go to an extreme for a bag of heroin?” I cannot get dope-sick. A cold sweat turns the hair on the back of my neck into a dripping mop. I get cramps in my stomach, aching mad, screaming for somebody to help. A knot twists my calf muscles into a gnarly ball. The worst is diarrhea, squeezing my sphincter muscles, tighter, tighter—holding on so I don’t mess all over myself. And the whole time, I know my God heroin will end the riveting, twisting, gnawing fire in seconds.
I shot my first bag of heroin the night my father died. It took away all my pain. But almost three years later, I’m still chasing that first high. Whatever I do, wherever I go, I just can’t match that initial blast of heroin. I have to do two or three bags at once just to kill the guilt, shame and panic attacks. I can’t swallow food without gagging, my arms are covered with infected holes and nothing at all is clear to me—it’s as if heroin hijacked my brain.
That was March 17, 1987.
I had shot heroin for 821 days, from December 4, 1984 until April 1. 1987. On that day in 1987, I climbed out of a very dark hole and turned my life around. But the most amazing thing about my life: those 821 days have defined who I am. It doesn’t matter that in my recovery I received arguably the top journalism awards in the nation. In fact, it doesn’t matter what I’ve accomplished as a professional, that stigma of being a “heroin addict” haunts me.
I really thought the “name-tag” would go away after I wrote a tell-all memoir. I was sure if I braved my deepest secrets, if I wrote my memoir as if I was reliving my descent into hell, I would be raptured from “my heroin life” and be born again.
My expectations were wrong. After 30 years of being clean, I’m still a “junkie.” That’s okay, though. I have accepted the fact that those 821 days out of over the 22,265 days I’ve lived will be the touchstone of my life. However, what I can’t for the life of me figure out is what happened to my brain. How did a smart kid, an athlete from a good family, stick a needle in his arm five or six times a day?
Listen to this. I can recall cooking heroin in the bottom of a busted up Pepsi can. When I squirted water into the makeshift spoon, purple ink from the price stamp at the market dissolved into the heroin water. The 10cc’s I drew up into the syringe through the cotton was solid purple. I looked at it, gagged from the overload of anticipated pleasure, and shot it anyway. Pure poison directly into my bloodstream. What was I thinking?
There are some people in this world that believe the current heroin epidemic has been orchestrated by the partnership of Big Pharma, the Federal Drug Administration, high-paid lobbyist, and Congress. They say this allegiance has a directed mission statement focused on hijacking opiate users’ brains “for profit.”
In fact, I met with a man once who told me he was a spook, a CIA spy. He had recently lost his son to an Oxycontin overdose and claimed he had proof that Purdue Pharma, the makers of Oxycontin, had doctored information about the hazards of their drug and that the Federal Drug Administration was in on the fix. He never showed me that proof, but records show that shortly after the FDA approved the 12-hour labeling of OxyContin, FDA chief Dr. Curtis Wright resigned and took a high-paying job with Purdue Pharma.
The history of this epidemic reads like a bestselling novel jam-packed with death, crime, and greed. However, the truth is not simple. But, what I am sure of is simple.
The word addiction comes from the Latin term “enslaved by” or “bound to.” According to a Harvard Medical School Mental Health Letter, heroin hijacks the human brain in three ways. First, almost immediately after your initial encounter with heroin, it brings about intense craving for more heroin. Second, after continued use, you lose complete control of how often you use heroin. Third, and probably the most insidious fact, regardless of the horrible consequences, permanent physical harm to yourself and to others, you continue to use heroin with reckless abandon.
But just how does heroin hijack the brain?
Easy. The human brain interprets all pleasure identically. Sex, chocolate, and heroin immediately change the chemical structure of your cerebral cortex. There is a small cluster of nerve cells called the nucleus accumbens. When heroin crosses the blood-brain barrier, it converts into morphine, and then dopamine, a neurotransmitter, is instantly released in the nucleus accumbens. Seconds later, the hard wiring of that specific region, the area neuroscientists call the brain’s pleasure center, short circuits and is overloaded with euphoria.
Wait, it gets worse. Heroin euphoria carries a double-edged sword. The first cut is dramatic; that is, using heroin just once can change the brain permanently. But the sharper side of the sword is devastating; that is, the initial euphoria doesn’t repeat itself. Instead, it becomes a memory, one that sadly turns “chasing” that high into an obsession. Jack Stein, director of the Office of Science Policy and Communications at the National Institute on Drug Abuse says, “Drugs (heroin) hijack the brain, and you stop feeling the pleasure of the experience. The addict who used to feel great, now is lucky to feel a little better.”
Take Phillip Seymour Hoffman. He had been clean for more than 20 years before injecting a lethal dose of heroin. “Drugs have a powerful effect on memory centers in the brain,” says Jack Stein. “Literally, every time someone injects heroin, they’re taking a risk of an overdose.”
And the bad news: the heroin addict population is multiplying faster than statistics can be recorded. The number of heroin users in America has increased around five-fold, from .33 percent of the population between between 2001 and 2002, to 1.60 percent of the population between 2012 and 2013. In 2016, almost every state in America is burying its children in record numbers.
In 2015, Maryland lawmaker Dan Morhaim proposed free heroin for all addicts. Morhaim said, “(It’s) better than having them commit $50-80 a day in crime.” In 2017, The Washington Post reported that officials in Seattle approved the nation’s first “safe-injection” sites for users of heroin. They called their decision drastic but a necessary response to an epidemic of addiction that is claiming tens of thousands of lives each year.
If these new initiatives continue to multiply across America, I certainly hope that each bill and new law includes a large supply of body bags. Imagine, an entire state of “controlled zombies.” In fact, Seattle could soon become the poster-child for the heroin hijacked brain.
In the end, we have two options for dismantling heroin addiction in America. We can join together, Democrats, Republicans, and Independents, and attack with extreme prejudice. Guarantee detoxes are readily available. Educate children starting in the 5th grade. Produce graphic Public Service Announcements like Europe. Shut down the Heroin Highway from Mexico. Make stiff laws to incarcerate those who traffic in or deal heroin—including charging those who sell heroin where there is a death involved with murder.
Or, we keep on keeping on as usual. Keep the rich-white-boys running the show and hijack enough brains so that we create this: Modern-Day-Slavery in America.
Ritchie Farrell is the author of the Amazon Bestseller, I Am A Heroin Addict.
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Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.