‘What I Want to Tell You About Heroin’ is a new series from VICE friend and contributor Hannah Brooks. Hannah is a Melbourne-based writer and musician, who has spent the past several years battling a heroin addiction. These articles were written while she was a guest of Hope Rehab in Thailand.
It’s Wednesday, 9 PM. I am in the back of a large four-wheel drive travelling from Sriracha to Bang Saray, a fishing village outside Pattaya on the east coast of Thailand. I rest my head against the left window and look out the right. I see the tangled electrical wires along Sukhumvit Road draping the street lights like snakes. The driver pulls into a 7-Eleven with a billboard that reads: “Child trafficking for begging is illegal.” From a fruit stall I buy a “Lady Fragile Drink” smoothie and light a cigarette. I catch my reflection in a window and it surprises me.
I am blonde with a tan, smoking a long, white menthol cigarette.
I am clean, and I have just left rehab.
Akiko, a 22-year-old heroin addict from Australia, is also with me. We have left rehab before and used drugs again. This time we are going straight from rehab to Hope House, a sober living facility. It feels like the safest step. We forget about home for now because for Akiko and I home is too dangerous. Going back to Australia and the ruins of our using would trigger our impulse to shoot drugs, fiercely. There are too many memories and associations, and it is too soon to be amongst them. We cannot risk it, so we stay in Thailand, exiled by our addiction, and cling to each other like kittens.
Previously, I have used drugs within one hour of leaving treatment. Sometimes I knew I’d use. Other times circumstance defeated me. Once a member of Narcotics Anonymous was sent to collect me from detox. I didn’t know her, but I was told that she was safe and we’d get along. She’d been in the cult Australian film Dogs in Space. Nick Cave had “died inside her” on tour in Berlin. She was Australian junkie royalty who’d been abstinent from drugs for a decade, relapsed briefly, and was now nine months clean.
On the drive home, she asked me if I was still having cravings.
“Yeah,” I answered. “Not too bad. I know with time they’ll lessen.”
She stared at the road ahead.
“Do you want to get on?” she asked.
“Do you want to have a taste?”
My palms started sweating and I felt a familiar fluttering in my chest. I was in trouble. I had just spent a week in detox: sweating, shivering, sick. Did I want to go through it all again?
Just once, I promised.
We turned off the highway, towards my dealer’s house. We got high and and talked about Astral Weeks and Tim Buckley and how she had grown up in Italy on a commune. We finished the gear, put lipstick on our cheeks and drove to the 6 PM NA meeting, where I received a round of applause for coming back clean.
When I wake up, it’s light. Initially, I do not recognise the curtains or that I am in my new room at the sober house. It’s quiet. I’ve slept till 7 AM, later than I have for months, and no one is around. After being in rehab surrounded by 30 people, it’s strange. I explore the grounds. The house is large and white and split into three levels. An overweight white puppy appears and runs towards me. Next door is a shack, precariously held together, where children and skinny chickens roam the yard. Outside the gate is a sleek chocolate horse and a pack of street dogs that, I am told, attacked and ripped a leg off the previous sober house dog. I’m careful to shut the gate.
Not much happens.
I stay clean.
I follow the sober house schedule. I show up on time. I write. I ride my bicycle to the beach where young boys jog slowly along the shore, training to be Muay Thai boxers. I only listen to 60s and 70s folk. Everything else seems ill-fitting; too jerky and jilting. I visit the temple at night to buy vintage bathing suits no one else wants, and during the day to pray. I make my bed and wash my hair no more than three times a week.
Life is simple, and I stay clean.
In the mornings, I buy fruit for breakfast. I do not steal, although I am tempted to because I miss the kick it gave me. I have plenty of time and I spend it perusing mangoes. I smell them. I press my fingers gently against their loud yellow flesh. I am delighted by the tiniest things. I used to be delighted by scoring drugs. I loved heroin, but I loved the anticipation of the high more. I lived for the moment when I had a full syringe, ready to shoot. Then the world was perfect. I was God, I was a queen, and everything after was a letdown.
When I was using a lot of heroin, I used to sneer at people performing mundane tasks: jogging, buying bread, eating in cafes. Their humanity was on show, and I wanted no part in it. I lived as though my feet were on fire. Everything was wild and dishevelled. I resented the simplicity of their lives and was exhausted by the complexity of mine. Sometimes I would get so tired. I would look fondly at the ground I walked on and imagine myself lying down, softly, and staying there forever. I would never move again. The ground would be warm from the sun and I would be at peace. I would lie still and wait for the ground to swallow me, and if it would not, I would wait for the sky to collapse and fall, one cloud at a time.
We are all transforming in our own ways. Akiko pulls out her pencils and begins, for the first time in years, to draw. Another resident, Jester, the British-Jamaican junkie, wears a flu-mask and dances to old R&B on her balcony. Afid lives on the top floor and is quiet. He is Egyptian and was heavily involved in the revolution.
“My life was like an action film,” he says. He tells me about the battles he fought while on heroin and LSD.
He waves an arm at the swimming pool where our peers laze about and sighs.
“I am not used to this.”
My life had been disordered for years but I was at my most deranged in the final weeks before coming to Hope. Everything had piled up. I had been busted so many times by the police that most dealers refused to sell to me because I was too hot. I could not smell a sandwich without vomiting. My arms were like a bad tapestry. My brother refused to say my name. I would practice smiling in my car’s rear vision mirror because it no longer came naturally to me. My addiction kept escalating. I stumbled into progressively worse situations. I could no longer deal with the chaos I was causing. I lurched from one disaster to the next, suffocating under the consequences. I no longer apologised for or tried to remedy anything because I could not guarantee I wouldn’t do it again.
My boyfriend tried to save me. He was always driving me to some detox, and I was always leaving. He took me to the beach, where I lay sweating on a boat. He took me to a city, and I tried to jump out of his moving car. He took me to an isolated cabin on a mountain and I made it through but scored the moment we arrived home. Afterwards, he drove me back to my regular detox clinic. I had heroin delivered for three days before convincing him to pick me up, take me to buy smack, pay for it and hold my tourniquet while I shot up in front of him, even though he was in recovery from heroin addiction. I promised him it would be the last time and I do not know why he believed me because I didn’t. On the scarf I used as a tourniquet, I wrote a vow with blood-smeared fingers: “It’s over”.
We mean these things as we say them.
I tied the scarf around a heavy rock and asked my boyfriend to drive to the lighthouse, where I threw it off a cliff into the dark water below.
This is the last time.
I used again as soon as dawn broke.
Not long after this, I stopped going home. I could not bear the lying or the guilt, the dodging and weaving. It would be easier for everyone if I disappeared.
In the absence of chaos I relax. I change gears. My grip loosens. I am no longer on high alert. I start to experience a wider range of feelings; softer ones, and the depth of them is startling. Usually if I managed to feel anything it was either elation or terror. I surfed a line between numbness and extreme emotions. I had no middle ground.
“Hannah,” a counsellor once told me, “you mistake anxiety for love”.
It was true. I felt comfortable with big emotions but living in that state stopped me feeling anything deeper. I felt best in the swell of drama. I wanted everything intense, always. The most excruciating, unforgiving music. The slowest, heaviest films. Partners who exhilarated me, but who I could equally detest. If people got too close or things got too stable, I would sabotage things. I liked tough because tough was familiar.
“You are addicted to chaos,” Henk, a counsellor at Hope told me, and even though I hated agreeing with him, he was right.
I receive an email from Gabriella, a woman I was in love with 10 years ago and have not heard from for two. When Gabriella and I broke up I started using heroin. I adored her, and the demise of our relationship devastated me. It was a dark time. My father had a heart attack and I saw him for the first time in years. I started slicing myself in the bath. Lightbulbs exploded when I walked into rooms. The energy was gloomy, and eventually Gabriella left. She went home to Argentina and I stayed in our apartment. I missed her and hated myself for not being able to preserve our relationship. I was in pain and did not know how to say that. I loved her and did not know how to show her that. So I hosted parties I did not want to have. I never slept. I sometimes showed up to work. All the drugs I was taking became redundant so I started using heroin.
It was a conscious decision.
I will become a junkie and that will show them.
Two of my friends had died from heroin overdoses by the time I was 22. I knew what it did, but I did it anyway. I didn’t know what else to do and becoming a junkie, I thought, would suit my temperament. It was a perverse decision with life-altering consequences but I was strong. I could handle it.
I smoke a packet of Camels re-reading her email:
“I am so proud of you
Not as a parent
Not out of vanity
But in true awe that
You are and exist
And that this vital force
In you is something great
I am and exist.
I am touched.
Great, grand, rare.
I love her so much that I don’t know what to say so I don’t write back.
Things start to fall apart. Cracks emerge. The fabric tears.
I feel flat.
I am bored.
Is this all there is?
Bob, a British alcoholic I was at Hope with, is asked to leave the sober house because of the way he speaks about women. He sits in a condo, watching Thai TV and crying. Alexi stays awake all night and sleeps till noon. Jester is seen walking on the beach with a massage lady who doesn’t massage. Charlie is fed up with Thailand. “I want to go home,” he says. “I want cold English weather, cups of tea and no mosquitos. I’ve had enough.” Alan gets 10 tattoos in three weeks.
We act out. We create drama because there is none. Fights start. Charlie and Alexi have their hands around each other’s throats. Charlie almost punches a staff member at Muay Thai. Jester and Bob sling verbal shots at each other over dinner. The whole group erupts into yelling when Afid brings up feminism. Alexi takes it further: he tells me that women are paid less than men because they are less productive. Women just aren’t as good at their jobs, he says. I want to kill him. Instead, I do a juice fast. I consume no food for four days. I say it’s for my health but it’s not; it’s an attempt to feel something severe to counteract the mundanity. Day one is fine but day two is not and day three is worse. I am starving. My stomach sounds strangled. I meditate and things get stranger. I have visions of pizza. I taste almond croissants. I smell freshly-baked banana bread. My teeth feel numb and foreign from not chewing. I get through four days. Once I eat again, and the intensity is over, I wish it wasn’t.
I have not used heroin, or any mind or mood altering drugs for over 100 days. My brain is undergoing synaptic pruning. I am shedding wasteful neural connections:
Crisp air and the rattle of tram wheels. Thick veins that rise like fireworks. The rustle of a paper bag.
My brain forms new neural pathways. Nerve endings blossom and spark. My hippocampus lays down new memories:
Akiko’s smile. Eating som tum at sunset by a Bang Saray beach. The purple orchids and orange marigolds I throw into the sea at dawn.
I learn to cycle through the peaks and troughs. Each day is different. I no longer need a chart to identify my feelings. What to eat for lunch becomes less of a crippling decision. I accept that I don’t have to be right all the time. I accept that sometimes I don’t get what I want, and sometimes I get better than what I imagined. I begin to see a future, and I start to stand a little taller.