Confessions Of An Upper East Side Heroin Addict
My friend Arnold Daniel says addiction steals everything from you, but when he recounts his story of going through six rehab centers on the East Coast to overcome an opiate addiction, it sounds like rehabilitation also comes at a cost.
“America is in the midst of an unprecedented drug overdose epidemic,” The Guardian writes. But don’t just take it from them—a look at almost any daily paper will report record numbers of deaths via opiates, and increasingly, heroin, their street drug counterpart. More people are dying from drug overdoses than from gun fatalities and car crashes; in 2014, overdoses killed 47,000 people in the US, averaging at 130 deaths per day, 80 of which involved an opioid. The problem largely lies with the healthcare system developed in America. In the late 90s and 2000s, doctors were pretty lax about prescribing opiates like OxyContin — synthetic heroin, do not get it twisted — across the country, and when government has cracked down on prescriptions, many who’d become dependent on opiates turned to heroin. Which is cheaper anyway.
“At the time [doctors were prescribing so often], it wasn’t understood how addicting these prescription pain medications were,” Michelle Lofwall, associate professor at the Center on Drug and Alcohol Research at the University of Kentucky School of Medicine says. “But they really hurt people here and across the nation. These were not safe medications with no abuse potential.”
We sit together at a Thai restaurant in Soho, and he’s asking me what to order, because he doesn’t know what to get, and he feels uncomfortable choosing. He says that’s one of the worst part of being sober; feeling uncomfortable in almost any social situation. He has trouble connecting with our old friends because he feels ashamed of himself.
We talk about Narcan, the controversial medical overdose antidote, which can be applied intravenously, or through a nasal spray. Some take issue with it, saying that Narcan enables addicts, but fuck those people, because Narcan saved Arnold’s life.
“My mom finally kicked me out of my apartment building, since I was just getting into too much trouble,” he tells me. “So I went down to my basement, shot up, and walked out onto the street. The next thing I know, I wake up in a hospital, with an IV in my arm. I remembered I had drugs in my pocket, so I filled the IV with heroin, shot myself up, ripped the needle out of my arm, and walked out of the hospital.”
He pauses. “Because who wants to get stuck with that bill?”
He says his needle scars are disgusting, and covers them. I’m holding back tears because I don’t want him to feel pressure to act any certain way, and because I could never find him disgusting. I actually want to hold him and cover his scars with my own arms, so nobody can look at him and judge him. I want to protect him against the mean, stupid world for making him experience so much pain by age 25. I decide the best thing I can do is probably suck it up and not publicly humiliate us both with my tears at a Thai restaurant.
Because the truth is that Arnold’s addiction is probably the least interesting thing about him. He grew up on the Upper East Side, with little interest in drugs, until high school became a point of contention in his life. .
“A lot of my early memories involve my mom going through these rages,” he says, reluctant to say anything that might indicate his mother as a cause for his addiction. He has no interest in putting the responsibility of his addiction on anyone, even though there are so many systems, so many people — including the scumbag who shot him up for the first time — that I’m happy to blame for him.
“She’d take Ambien, and then go off on me about something I did wrong, or just putting me down for something, and then in the morning she wouldn’t remember anything,” he said.
Friends in his neighorhood also had parents with stocked up medicine cabinets, so they’d start experimenting with Xanax. One time, they took some pills from a friend’s parent’s bottle, and they made him throw up. He thinks it was probably around then that he started taking opiates often.
About that first time:
“I went into rehab for the first time with an opiate addiction, and then entered for the third time for heroin. Rehab teaches you all these ways to become a better addict, like how to pass a piss test, and score better drugs, so unless you’re really ready to stop, it won’t work,” he explains. “My heroin usage basically started one day when I couldn’t find any more pills to get high with, so a dealer I knew suggested I try shooting up. I was desperate, but nervous. So then he did it for me. ”
He also explained to me how drug dealers are operating in plain sight on some of the most widely used websites and social platforms. He tells me of the kids he’s seen die in rehab, after ODing on the drugs they bought in the institutions, often under the nose of those supervising.
“It was so hard,” he says. “To see the look on this mother’s face when she came to find out what happened with her son. You know, like you drop your son off at a rehab center, thinking he’s going to get better, and then you get a call saying that he’s actually been able to buy and use, and now you’ve got to come pick up a body. I was like, fuck, I can’t do that to my mom.”
He says that his addiction led him into such dark isolation that he has immense trouble feeling like he fits in anywhere at all. I point out that he never really fit in anyway; that’s why I love him. He grew up wanting to be a meteorologist, and was always the weirdo talking about aliens and government conspiracy theories, asking people questions about themselves with an intensity that would catch them off guard, and then immediately endear them to him.
“I’ve always had so much going on in my head,” he says. “It would feel good to just not have to feel all of that all the time.”
He tells me about the last time he entered a rehab center, at an institution that requires prospective patients prove the state of their emergency.
“I’ve been thinking of shooting myself in the head,” he told them, desperate. They admitted him to the psych ward, and set him up with a bed and an individual space. He was grateful to be in a safe space, until he looked up at the message scrawled across a white board placed above his bed.
“Wants to shoot himself in head,” it read in big letters for all to see. He looks at me seriously when saying this, though I’m laughing hysterically, horrified. “I asked if they’d take it down, since I was so embarrassed, but they said they needed it up, for the interns or whatever, to be able to identify me. It was just funny, you know? Like, this is what my life is reduced to.”
He’s in the process of making a documentary about heroin usage in New York City, involving interviews with a number of fascinating people he met in rehab. “Do you think ‘The Heroin Holocaust’ is a good name for a documentary?” he asks me. We’re sitting on the 1 train now, cooling off from the hot May sun.
I tell him “heroin holocaust” is brilliant, that it conjures the perfect image of a problem that has a cause, with a perpetrator, and how it’s rife with enough reference for people to actually care.
“I don’t have the confidence you do,” he tells me. “I just want people to know that there’s no amount of pain anybody is ever in that’s worth prescribing the drugs that these doctors are giving out.”
I look at him, though it’s hard because his eyelashes are so long and I want to cry again.
“You have to at least be open to the idea,” I say. “That what you’re doing is good.”
He thinks about it, but doesn’t look convinced. “Okay,” he says. He tells me he loves me, and stares off into space. I wish I knew what he was thinking, but it’s too late, and he’s getting off at his stop, and going home to his mother, to the Upper East Side building where all one has to do to get a fix is knock on a door, to all these places where I can’t kiss his scars or protect him. I haven’t seen him since.