Since the inclusion of pop culture in the media, we have been able to mask various kinds of darkness in some forms of beauty and then feed it to the all-too-unassuming public. Take, for example, the 1997 hit single by Third Eye Blind titled, “Semi-Charmed Life”. The upbeat tempo and the vibrant melody both serve as a kind of disguise for the somewhat somber lyrics, which have been ignored by a majority of their audience. For many people, including myself, the song has only been a 90’s pop tune played in the mall on occasion. Perhaps it reminds some listeners of a whimsical summer and others of the naivety of first loves. The truth of the matter is that the song cannot be reduced to any one of those synopses. Rather, it makes a statement about drug use from the hopeful and even positive outlook of a crystal meth addict. Didn’t see that one coming, right?
The song brings forth a perspective that many of us probably cannot understand. In order to obtain some insight, I closely studied the lives of a couple functioning users in my area; one of which was a friend of mine, and the other, a friend of his. I know, you’re probably wondering what in the hell compelled me to explore this curiosity. I just can’t rest until my questions have been, in some way, answered.
I was interested in their ability to continue with their lives without completely falling victim to unavoidable distractions or obstacles. How is it that someone can shoot up a few times a day and still hold a job, pull the blinds over the eyes of loved ones, or even maintain a heathy ratio between waking to sleeping hours? I knew my primary subject for a few years, although I wasn’t previously familiar with the intimate details of his life. I never suspected a single thing prior to working on the article. He came from a relatively affluent family that supported him in each and every one of his endeavors. He was successfully admitted to a fairly prestigious public university, and he actively maintained a healthy social life before becoming involved in the drug world. Naturally, I was fascinated by the situation. Someone so undeniably intelligent with so much promise was a victim of drug addiction. It was, to say the least, unbelievable to me.
In a late-night conversation, my friend shared his worries, frustrations, and shame. From the first time he’d used to the agony of relapse, I was immersed in an experience that I would never have. I discovered how easily old friends would disappear and new ones would emerge. I learned that a user’s friends were only fellow users and that trust is virtually nonexistent among them. Our conversation didn’t satisfy my yearning to understand, so I decided to spend more time getting to know him.
He often came over, an avid conversationalist, and spoke for the few hours he was awake. He would gladly chat about anything, however the dialogue somehow always led to heroin. We could be speaking about run-ins with teachers at grocery stores, and it would surely lead to heroin. We could be exchanging opinions on popular video games, and it would surely lead to heroin. We could be sitting in the thick of silence, and it would surely lead to heroin. And after three hours of speaking, he would doze into slumber for a mind-boggling fourteen to sixteen hours, consecutively. When questioned about potentially being narcoleptic, his defensiveness kicked in. The idea of being someone else’s worry overwhelmed him so greatly that he couldn’t accept genuine concern. Rather, to him, it was a passing of judgment. I concluded that the fear of judgement or disappointment by loved ones ultimately isolates the user from positive social agents. I soon realized that I had become something like a diary to a lonely man with more needles in his floorboard than reliable friends in his life.
According to Stop Heroin, There are ways to tell if you’re dealing with a heroin addict. Well, I was interested in what they felt would be indicative. The two men I had come to know were such ordinary individuals who seemed, in many ways, unaffected by their daily drug use.
Heroin users can be secretive, even with their friends. These might be tell-tale signs:
- sudden and regular changes in mood
- secretive behavior
- changes in sleep patterns
- morning sickness, diarrhea or constipation
- nodding or sleeping sitting up
- cigarette burns on their clothes/carpet/furniture
- evidence of drug use, such as scorched pieces of tin foil, burnt spoons, needles, and so on
- lack of money, but with no evidence of things being bought
- missing work or school
- spending time with people who use heroin
(Courtesy of Stop Heroin)
Well, needless to say, it began to make a lot more sense. I had observed 8 out of the 10 tell-tale signs in my primary subject on a daily basis. In a matter of minutes, trivial conversations about high school memories turned into defensive monologues that would last an hour. It became habitual for him to turn his phone away from my curious eyes when responding to text messages from an ex-girlfriend of his, whom he claimed to cease contact with. The secretive behavior and unprovoked hostility had become components of his personality. Heroin, if possible, became his worst character trait.
Then there was the life he’d left behind. Aren’t we all wondering about that college degree? What about the prestigious university and the hope for occupational success? Well, there is an answer for that. The ninth bullet of the list covers it. When you miss classes, you fail to submit assignments. When you fail to submit assignments, your grades eventually bottom out, and that is precisely what happened. The tenth bullet was the cause for all of the trouble. The eighth bullet raised suspicion for members of his family, and bullets three through five were the most difficult for me to bear witness to. He exhibited each and every one of the side effects that horrify us and discourage us from ever wanting to experience it for ourselves. Before he’d known it, he had been hollowed out, soul shriveled like the leaves in autumn and eyes as empty as schoolyards in the summertime.
I had never witnessed someone using heroin, prior to my investigation, aside from what I’d seen in television shows and movies. I was introduced to a friend of my primary subject with permission to photograph the event, given that anonymity was preserved. I watched as the two men laughed casually about the minor complications that one encounters in the process of shooting up and the excitement in the eyes of my secondary subject as he drew a needle from the pocket of his cargo shorts and laid a coin-sized bag of a powder-like substance on the desk. “You need to explain what you’re doing and why you’re doing it,” said my primary subject, followed by an uncomfortable-sounding cough. The man looked at me and calmly talked me through the process. He placed the powder into a spoon, mixed some sort of liquid with it until the mixture appeared to have a fairly fluid consistency. He proceeded to draw the concoction into the syringe needle through a cotton swab, which he’d placed in the center of the mix. Before asking, I realized what purpose the cotton swab fulfilled, which allowed me to remain silent during an already-awkward moment. He tapped the needle and went in for the first attempt. And after failing to stick a vein, he retried it. And he retried it, and he retried it before my primary subject sensed the need for assistance. A horrific moment for any nonuser to watch was a bonding experience that I still cannot comprehend. A second set of hands glided the needle into his vein so effortlessly, and the two men joked about the trail of blood that speckled the length of his arm.
After the viewing, I found myself no longer able to look at a cotton swab as a mere beauty supply. I observed as the secondary subject removed the band from his arm before remembering the depressed needle hanging from his forearm. His order of operations was unclear to me, but I focused my attention on his post-use behavior. It came as a surprise to me that he acted no differently than he had before. He simply smiled, and we continued our conversation about his nephew’s birthday presents. And the hooves that stampeded through his veins could only be heard by him, alone.
Later that evening, I addressed my primary subject with some inquiries concerning the why aspect of his use. He explained how significantly the length of time spent using affected his choice to continue. “Withdrawals are the worst feeling ever,” he sighed, “and you’ll do anything to keep from going through that.” He explained the physical agony that the body endures during withdrawal periods. The full-body soreness and fatigue, similar to what one experiences with mononucleosis, sounded unbearable. However, he admitted his least favorite facet of withdrawal was the stomach-turning sickness. The nausea and cold chills, as described in his account, brought to mind my own personal experience with seasonal viral infections, and I couldn’t imagine undergoing such a hardship due to a lack of drugs. Aside from the fear of withdrawal, I watched his eyes dazzle with delight as he described the sensation of invincibility. He illustrated the transition from an average man into his own perception of god. And he insisted that heroin could not be held responsible for any related deaths, as they are ultimately the faults of ignorant abusers. His delusion alone paralyzed me.
Among many of my unexpected findings was the observance of undisturbed peace. I had previously imagined drug users enduring insanely terrifying lifestyles, sleeping on unfamiliar couches, which they arrived at by some unremembered chain of events. I pictured violence, an imminent risk factor, becoming as mundane to them as going to work or riding the subway. I never expected that I would witness the undisturbed serenity, first-hand. I did not anticipate that I would ever detect the vulnerability of a child in the act of “nodding off”. Eyes shut, breathing slowed, and racing thoughts silenced, I made note of the content expression that settled across his face and decided it was all I needed to somewhat comprehend the way in which he survives.
“Heroin doesn’t make everything better, but it makes everything okay.” Those words, as said by my primary subject, formed the closing line for my study. Some seemingly ordinary people just want something else to get through this semi-charmed kind of life.