Who Am I Without Drugs? Imagining Life After Rehab
“My identity had become so entwined with heroin that I had normalised it. It was only occasionally, in a moment of clarity, that I realised just how abnormal being a heroin addict was.”
Photo by Nikky G
‘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 is the year 2561 BE.
I have been at Hope Rehab in Thailand for two months before I realise this. A tuk tuk driver called Diamond explains it to me one night as we’re driving along Sukhumvit Road. The Kingdom of Thailand follows the Buddhist, not Gregorian calendar, she says. I like that it is not 2018, because 2018 has been a difficult year.
I am in the future, but I am thinking about the past.
In my eighth week at Hope, I tell my life story. I am not comfortable doing it but everything about rehab feels uncomfortable. I talk about my childhood. I talk about my teens. I describe the progression of my drug use, the pivotal points in my life. Towards the end, when I speak about my three-year relapse and 19 attempts to stop using heroin, my voice becomes monotone. I sounded like I was reading a menu, I am told.
I no longer like the narrative.
In my iPhone I find a note from 2015, not long after I first relapsed after being abstinent for a few years. It says:
In a toilet at a swimming pool in Ashfield, I shot up for the first time in six weeks, to the sound of children splashing and cheering, and teachers with megaphones trying to keep control on a 38-degree day.
I was a patient at a private psychiatric clinic in Sydney, trying to get clean. My doctor had put me on a maintenance dose of Suboxone for five weeks, slowly weaning me off it. When the cravings kicked in, I called a friend in Melbourne and asked for the number of a dealer in Sydney. The dealer turned out to be a man who’d recently been in the clinic with me. Anytime, he said.
The consequence of using in the toilet at the swimming pool in Ashfield on a 38-degree day was that I was discharged from the clinic. I went to a hotel and shot up. The gear was strong and I got a habit and a pattern was set in motion: clinic, hotel, clinic, hotel. I would come to after a shot, unsure how many hours had passed and if waking up with a needle in my arm counted as an overdose. I only ate ice cream. I documented this time through notes and recordings and photos that I find difficult to look at. I am pale. I weigh nothing. I got high and bleached my hair in a hotel sink and it turned out “borange”. I could not keep my eyes open. In some photos they are rolling back in my head. I vomited everywhere, all the time. I would throw up on my ankle boots and keep walking.
I lived inside a video game. The goal was gear. There were obstacles: money, nurses, psychiatrists, cops, finding needles. I went “crazy” and bolted from one clinic because I had no “leave permission” and my dealer was outside waiting for me. A nurse called the police. When I returned, I was scheduled and taken to a public psych ward by four police officers.
Being escorted by four police officers to a public psych ward while carrying two bags of heroin in my underwear was an obstacle, but I got around it. The female officer patted me down but did not strip search me. Over two hours, I wore the evaluating doctor down. I was not insane, or suicidal, it was a mistake. The nurse hated me. I’m a professional writer and I had a panic attack and I’m fine and I’ve learnt my lesson and please let me go because I am holding two bags of heroin and I want a shot. I burst through the glass doors, triumphant. I got the Uber driver to stop at the nearest service station so I could shoot up.
Most days, when I wasn’t in a clinic, I would score with my friend Tom and his friend Saxon. Saxon always had new stick and poke tattoos and Tom used to be a Buddhist monk. We would shoplift for money. One day, I was permitted to leave a clinic mid-detox to “buy cigarettes”. I was sick – spewing, shivering and desperate to score. I had one hour. Tom went to get drugs for me and I stayed with Saxon who had already had a strong shot. He couldn’t walk without falling down. People stared at us. We stumbled to a park. Tom mixed up while I watched Saxon. I had to shake him every minute and check his pulse because he wasn’t moving and I wasn’t sure if he was breathing. When I returned to the clinic hours later my bags were packed. I rolled my suitcase to another austere hotel room.
When we met up to score the next day, Tom was alone.
“Where’s Saxon?”, I asked.
There is nothing glorious about these stories. They stink of death and desperation and despair. I tell these stories because I could not get clean and yet I am still standing and others are not and I no longer ask why.
Most people at Hope have been to rehab before. Laura is an alcoholic in her 50s from Beverly Hills. She’s been trying to get sober for 10 years, but, until Hope, has never gotten more than 19 days up. In 12 years, Arthur has never been clean for longer than three months. He has been to seven rehabs and detoxes. Lee: 11. Rado: 17. Jester: three. Akiko: six. Dewey: six. Alan: three. The numbers make us gloomy.
In my second week at Hope, while detoxing, we had a client-led group about relapse. They presented statistics about staying clean.
The numbers were not right. They were too positive. They were misleading.
“Where did you get these statistics from?” I yelled from my mat on the floor.
The internet, they said.
“Well, they’re bullshit. It’s more like: out of 30 of us, 25 will relapse and maybe 3 people will stay clean. And two will die, probably in the next year.”
The room was silent. I felt disliked.
It was probably too much negativity from someone who couldn’t sit up, but it’s what I knew to be true.
Recent statistics report that: “More than two thirds of individuals in recovery relapse within weeks to months of beginning addiction treatment.”
“More than 85 percent of individuals relapse and return to drug use within the year following treatment”.
For a long time, I believed that if I was triggered, or experienced a craving for drugs, I had to act on it. The debate was unbearable.
I had a boyfriend last year who would tell me that I pitied myself. My problems, he believed, were self-created.
“Go and watch BBC Africa,” he'd tell me.
They’re just cravings.
“You’re better than that,” he’d tell me.
I understood where he was coming from, but I disagreed. My cravings were all encompassing. They would swallow me.
He broke up with me after I was arrested again for heroin possession. I didn’t mind. I no longer cared if I had a boyfriend. I had transcended normal human desires. I was inhuman.
Rehab will not “fix” you. It’s a start but it’s not a cure. Plenty of people go to rehab and leave exactly the same. You have to do the work. I have been to the same rehab twice with completely different results. The first time I was there for seven months and I stayed clean for a substantial time afterwards.
The second time was about five years later. I stayed two months before walking out to use drugs with a male client who’d also had enough. He looked like Humphrey Bogart if he’d had been stabbed in the eye with a pool cue, which Aaron had. We were barely off Suboxone and our cravings had returned. And then a client we lived with, a friend, died.
Gus had decided to get drunk, even though he was a heroin addict. Anything would do. He ran through the canefields to the nearest town so he wouldn’t be seen walking along the main road. He stole a bucket and filled it with 50 bottles of vanilla essence. When he made it back to rehab he was drunk and covered in mud. He chased me around the house, begging for my dealer’s number. I refused.
He was discharged. Staff dropped him at a backpackers in Byron Bay, but he never went to the backpackers. He died that night by the train tracks that no longer carried trains. He had ingested large quantities of Seroquel, an antipsychotic commonly handed out at detoxes like candy.
I was furious. He hadn’t even used heroin and he was dead. I was angry at the rehab for just dropping him in town. I packed my suitcase and in under an hour I was throwing up in my dealer’s garden.
I have strong but mixed feelings about Aaron, the man I left rehab with, who looked like Humphrey Bogart. Over the past few years, we have been through a lot together. We were friends, we were lovers. We used together and attempted to get clean together. We shared a deep affection but had the ability to bring out the worst in each other. He almost killed me through physical violence, twice. I had a restraining order out on him, so he technically wasn’t allowed within 100 metres of me, but with time, we ignored that and scored together anyway. Because he was in love with me and because he felt guilty for hurting me, I could get him to do anything I wanted. Each time I checked myself into detox, I would beg him to bring me drugs. I was aware that going to detox and getting drugs delivered was counter-productive but nothing I did made sense. This happened numerous times. The only time he didn’t deliver was when the area had experienced flash flooding and all the roads were closed. When they reopened I caught an Uber from the clinic back to Byron Bay to score heroin. It was a three-hour trip, but no-one noticed.
I envy the people who are in rehab for the first time. I envy their naivety and I envy their enthusiasm.
“I’ve got this,” they say. “I’ll never use again.”
We believe these things as we say them.
I get to know a woman called Saffron who can’t stop snorting cocaine. She’s 24 and from Canada and it’s her first time in rehab. Saffron is pretty, with short bleached blonde hair. Her dad died of a cocaine and heroin overdose when she was eight. She’s struggling with the whole total abstinence thing. I won’t buy coke, she says, I’ll just have social bumps. A week in, she gives up. “I’m a fucking addict,” she announces. “I can’t have anything!” She says this but Saffron doesn’t want to stay at Hope any longer than a month because she misses her friends and all this eating food in rehab is making her skeletal frame gain fat. When you get clean you get hungry.
Staff tell Saffron to listen to my life story. It’s a cautionary tale. If I could save Saffron an inch of pain, I would. If I could pour bottles of recovery down her throat, I would. She will either get it or not, in her own time, but the problem is that people die.
I dye my hair blonde because, right now, I don’t feel like being the Hannah I have been. Things are different. This time I will stay clean.
I switch counsellors.
I want to talk to a woman. Sharon is British and almost 60 but looks 10 years younger.
“Skin care by heroin,” she says, pinching her cheeks.
I trust her.
Sharon calls me “chronic”. I’m not the only one. There’s a handful of us, and as Sharon observes, we are tight.
She tells me: “You, Stefanos, Akiko, Saffron: all chronic”.
“And look at you, you’re all friends. You’re all going to die.”
Sharon chews gum. We don’t argue with her. We know that if we use again we won’t live long and she’s one of us, so we listen.
Who am I without drugs?
I see my reflection in a bent spoon; concave.
My identity had become so entwined with heroin that I had normalised it. It was only occasionally, in a moment of clarity, that I realised just how abnormal being a heroin addict was. I got so used to it that the mechanics of it no longer shocked me: the willingness to do anything for drugs, the constant bleeding from trying to find a vein. Not long ago I was meeting my sister, her boyfriend and my mother for breakfast at a café. I was late because I had to score because if I didn’t I would be sick. I shot up in my car and threw my equipment under the seat and walked in. As I sat down and ordered a latte, my sister started crying. I didn’t realise that my right arm was still covered in blood. I wiped it off with a napkin and returned to the menu. My sister walked out.
I realise I am not just writing about failed attempts. I am writing about identity.
I educated myself through books and music. Most of my idols are drug addicts: Edie, Lou, Nico, Marianne, Anita, Courtney, Kurt, Iggy, Bowie, Burroughs, Stevie. I have always been attracted to the “other,” the “outsiders” and the “underdog.” Musicians, artists, weirdos, homosexuals, witches and poets. At school, I liked Jesus because he hung out with poor people and prostitutes. In grade 10, I played the scene from Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch where they shoot up bug powder as part of my English presentation. I was wearing pyjamas and my teacher predicted I would be an anarchist.
I have never wanted what most people want.
In group one day, Akiko muses: “What kind of normal person finds it attractive to go and smoke a crack pipe, get wasted, and end up sitting on the curb and getting pissed on and pickpocketed?”.
I am a cliché, a junkie in a rock n roll band.
I am unwashed and angry, fighting with my boyfriend in the street. I am a woman in a short dress handcuffed on the side of the road.
I am a woman who wants a child.
I am a writer, I am an addict.
Saffron and I drink diet coffee from Thai Oil.
We’re addicts but who are we?
You’re better than that, he’d tell me .
Saffron asks: “Getting clean doesn’t mean we have to become boring, right?”.
I look at her in her Boy Scout shirt and bent-out-of-shape straw hat.
I smile, and the sun shines brightly on our bleached blonde hair.
This article originally appeared on VICE AU.