Lean – illustration of a man from behind, standing on the bow of a ship with a storm raging in front of them and a little devil on his shoulder. The illustrations is in tones of green, blue and purple.
Illustration: Benjamin Tejero

I Was a Lean Addict For 8 Years. Now My Memories Mean Nothing

“It's a little demon whispering in my ear that I constantly have to fight against."
Lola Buscemi
Paris, FR
illustrated by Benjamin Tejero

A version of this article originally appeared on VICE Belgium.

Lean (AKA purple drank) is to rap today what heroin was to 80s and 90s rock and roll. Over the past two decades, this cough-syrup-based concoction has taken over the scene, starting with artists in Houston and slowly spreading to other parts of the world. The main ingredient that gets you high is codeine, an opiate that’s used both as a cough suppressant, and to treat pain and diarrhoea.


In the UK, codeine is available over-the-counter in small doses, as well as on prescription. If you mix it with a fizzy drink and allergy medication, you’ll feel a little high for four to six hours. But the effects won’t completely wear off for up to 48 hours.

Lean mainly reduces anxiety and creates a sense of slight euphoria. It can also cause drowsiness and even a feeling of dissociation from the body, though. Another side effect is what gives the drug its name: People tend to slouch or lean to the side when they drink it. In cases of severe misuse, it can lead to hallucinations, seizures, slower heart rate, slower breathing and blurry vision, too.

“If I had to summarise my history with drugs as a metaphor, it would be a bit like the anime One Piece,” says Jonathan, a 30-something musician based in Belgium, who’s asked to use an alias to protect his career. “It's as if I was on a boat with my buddies and we discovered a new thing: codeine. We're on this journey, until the critical moment when the entire crew sees the storm approaching. Sensing impending doom, everyone gradually leaves except me, the only fool left on the boat.”

Jonathan began doing lean back in 2015 when he noticed a lot of artists he liked mentioning it in songs, videos and on social media. In Belgium, codeine is only available on prescription, but a friend of his got his hands on cough syrup through his grandma in Spain, and smuggled it on the plane in tiny travel-size containers. “We started trying it, and I loved it,” he says. “I’ve always tend to take things to the extreme, and when I really like something I tend to overindulge. From that moment on, everything escalated.”


Growing up, Jonathan never thought he’d end up developing a toxic relationship with a prescription drug. His mum was the hippy, everything-organic-type who always saw meds as sketchy. This attitude stuck with him, too – even now, he avoids taking drugs when he’s sick. But the fact that all his favourite artists were doing lean back then just made it seem cooler.

“During that first period, we were taking codeine recreationally, but maybe I was doing it a bit more than the others,” he says. This was a pretty busy time in his professional life – he was touring every six months, and would often request to have his syrup on location for when he arrived.

“Since I was part of a group, I didn't necessarily need to talk much,” he says. “I could let the others take the spotlight while I was high. I liked that kind of mysterious vibe, it fit perfectly with the whole thing.” Although Jonathan was still leaning regularly, the tour schedule meant he had to take breaks from it every once in a while. “Codeine isn't like weed, where the next day you still feel a bit groggy,” he says. “Each dose takes away 48 hours of your life. When you add them up, it's a lot of time wasted in a year.”

One day, when Jonathan was in Montreal for a festival, his mum came across his Instagram account where he often publicly showed himself using. “She sent me a message saying that I was embarrassing her, and it really hit me hard,” he says. “But I didn't stop at all. I just stopped showing it on social media. I was obsessed with it.”


Over the next two years, Jonathan’s dependency on the drug got even worse. “I couldn’t relax if I didn’t have it,” he recalls. “I had physical withdrawal symptoms, I’d made back-and-forth trips to get it. It quickly became an essential daily thing.” Jonathan’s friends and family were worried, but he seemed to have his career under control, so they didn’t push him too much to quit.

“There were times when I took a lot for two weeks, and then I stopped,” he says. “You have so much endorphins that the doses are followed by a somewhat depressive phase. I was on a rollercoaster, but I managed to hide it.” Lean also completely changed Jonathan's relationship with his own memories. “I don't cherish them as much anymore, I’ve lost so many that I gave up,” he says.

Although his drug use was already out of control, Jonathan didn't really think about quitting – he enjoyed his life on lean too much. No one in his life confronted him directly, but people gradually left him. “Lean tarnished my image, it made me mess up, even though I'm usually very disciplined,” Jonathan says. “I lost my girlfriend at the time. She thought, ‘This guy is going to die.’ She didn't want to be in love with someone like that.”

And then came the day when Jonathan couldn’t get his hands on the syrup: “A friend had pills, oxys, so I started taking those too.”


After a period of career success, things started to stagnate with his group and the pandemic hit them hard. “No more music videos, no more concerts, no obligations,” he says. “I didn’t go out much. I had a studio at home.”

Jonathan started taking whatever pill he could get his hands on, including opiates like tramadol. “They're not euphoric or social drugs, they just allow you to switch off,” he says. “I couldn’t constantly be thinking, I needed to switch off my brain.” As a side effect, Jonathan began craving greasy food, and ended up gaining 20kg.

That’s when his loved ones decided to stage an intervention, which Jonathan did not respond well to. “I hate it when people impose things on me, so at first I resisted,” he says. “I argued with everyone, and the drugs became a sort of Band-Aid.”

It took some time for Jonathan to calm down and acknowledge he had a problem. In 2021, he joined a gym and began exercising quite intensely – and unhealthily, by his own admission – to shed the weight he’d gained during his years of heavy use. He quit codeine but replaced it with clonazepam, an anti-anxiety medication.

“Summer 2022, just as I was starting to get back on track, I got the urge to get a little high,” Jonathan says. “It was a frustrating day, and my only goal was to chill and watch TV before getting back to my workout routine the next day. But I woke up in the hospital with a broken pelvis, a shattered wrist, and two broken ribs. I couldn't walk. And I didn’t know what had happened.”


For two months, Jonathan lay still on his back while his mother took care of him. When he finally got home, he realised he’d taken all his pills and fallen from his balcony, a three-metre drop. “I could’ve died,” he says.

“To this day, I have no memory of exactly how it happened or who called an ambulance. I just had some weird photos on my phone, I filmed my feet on the balcony, things like that.” The only thing he was sure of was that it wasn’t an attempted suicide, as that’s not something he’s ever thought about.

Jonathan’s friends and family didn’t understand – they thought things had already improved. The fall was a real wake up call for him, but he hasn’t been able to quit lean completely – he still does it once a week or every two weeks and thinks about it multiple times a day. “It's a little demon whispering in my ear I have to constantly fight against,” he says. “But the worst of the storm is behind me now.”

“I've never sought professional help, I have many preconceptions and I've often felt I'm above all that,” he says. “But gradually, I'm starting to think it could be beneficial. That's my next step.”