The coronavirus lockdown is difficult for everybody, but it creates a unique set of challenges for addicted heroin users. Robbie, a 28-year-old former market-researcher from Portsmouth, has been a frequent heroin user for the last three years. He gave me a detailed breakdown of how the lockdown has affected his life since it came into effect three weeks ago.
I suffer from anxiety, so when the lockdown was first announced it played havoc with my nerves. There's never been a point in human history when the whole world has shut down to this extent, so naturally it was extremely disconcerting. I also worried that the heroin supply might stop due to dealers self-isolating, but I soon found I was still able to get hold of it fairly easily, which helped me to de-stress. Gear makes you feel as if there's a solution to everything, even something as monumental as the pandemic, so it allowed me to temporarily relax.
Prior to the lockdown I'd been using methadone as well as heroin. I'd been prescribed a daily dose of 50ml, with the idea being I'd substitute it for heroin, then gradually reduce the dosage of methadone until I was clean. Realistically, though, I think I needed to be on a higher dose, because I still took gear at least every three days.
I was on a regime known as "daily consume", which entailed collecting a bottle of methadone from the pharmacist each day, drinking it in front of the staff and then handing them the bottle back. The logic behind this was that it would prevent me from either selling the bottles on or taking more than I was supposed to in order to get high. On the day of the lockdown, I was told by the pharmacist that I could now collect seven bottles at a time. Although I stuck to the rules and only drank one a day, the same couldn't be said of other users, with many of them exceeding their daily dose or selling bottles to other addicts.
The changes to my methadone collection were initially the only real alterations to the way in which I managed my addiction. However, around three days into the lockdown I rang my regular dealer for some brown and was told he couldn't sort me out. I tried a couple of other numbers and was informed that it was now too risky to drop it off. The way the system worked round here prior to the lockdown was that dealers gave the gear to runners, who arranged to meet the users at specified locations. The runners were typically addicts who were paid £50 worth of heroin each day. Where they were once typically happy to do this in order to support their habits, they now thought that hanging around on the streets with wraps of heroin on them would be far too dangerous on account of the fact there was nobody else about and they'd stand out like sore thumbs.
'This is unbelievable!' I thought to myself. 'I've got money in my pocket and I'm still going to have to go cold turkey.' I was terrified at the prospect of being drug-free for the entire lockdown; it's difficult enough going through withdrawal at the best of times, let alone during such an uncertain period, with so many obvious sources of anxiety. I didn't know if I'd be able to cope.
That night I found it impossible to sleep, and my legs began to ache; after a while they started involuntarily kicking out in all directions. This is known as "riding the bike", and is a common symptom of heroin withdrawal. I also went through a period of really intense worry about what the world would be like when the lockdown was over. Comedowns from heroin cause my stress levels to go through the roof, and there was no shortage of things to fret about.
Fortunately the drug supply started to pick up again over the course of the next few days, presumably because the dealers and runners realised that the lockdown was likely to go on for months and weren't willing to put their earnings on hold for that long. There was a change to the way they operated, though; the runners now expected users to ring when they were a few minutes away from the agreed meeting place, so that they didn't have to wait around too long. They didn't appear to be overly concerned about getting the corona; their main priority was avoiding getting nicked. I was worried about both, because I've got asthma, which places me more at risk of being hospitalised or even dying if I contract the virus. The runners typically keep the heroin in their mouth and spit it into their hand before passing it over, which seems like a perfect way to spread the virus. I was placed in the precarious position of having to smoke and inhale a substance that had been stored in someone else's mouth at the height of a pandemic.
After a week of lockdown I started feeling very isolated. I live on my own, so the only faces I saw on a daily basis were those of the runners. Whereas I'd previously only looked forward to scoring drugs because I'd get to smoke them later, I now relished the fact that buying them gave me an excuse to leave the house and do something different. It didn't do much to alleviate the isolation, though, as runners don't really engage in small talk; they just hand the wrap over and go on their way.
I also noticed that my habit had grown. The boredom of being cooped up in my flat with nothing to do had led to me taking heroin every day. Whereas I'd previously attended recovery meetings, I now had no support network available to me, which probably also contributed to this. At the meetings we'd given each other the strength to fight our addictions. I sorely miss them now that they're no longer available. There are some online groups, but they're no match for face-to-face human interaction.
As the days ticked on I became increasingly concerned about what the world would be like when the lockdown was finally over. I'd initially followed the progress of the virus on the news, but stopped watching it because it scared me too much. I also worried constantly about something happening that would affect my financial situation, leaving me unable to purchase drugs. Whereas the lockdown had forced a lot of people into unemployment, I was fortunate enough to work from home, which meant I still had an income. My job consisted of doing market research for companies via the phone. I wasn't sure how secure it was in such unpredictable times, though.
Towards the start of April, my boss broke the news to me that the supply of clients had dried up and they were going to have to let me go. Yesterday I submitted an application for universal credit, which was extremely disheartening. Up until that point I'd been proud of myself for maintaining a job in spite of my addiction, so it was a massive blow to my self-esteem. It also leaves me uncertain about how I'm going to fund my habit throughout the months to come, which is quite frankly terrifying. The thought of going cold turkey while alone and isolated during such a stressful period doesn't bear thinking about.
I'm also concerned that the supply chain of heroin will stop at some point. There's a very real possibility that there will be further issues somewhere down the line. Who knows, though, maybe the drug trade will be the only industry left intact after all this. Only time will tell.
My plans for the remainder of the lockdown are to find another source of income – if that's even possible – hope I don't get nicked while scoring heroin on the otherwise empty streets, and try not to go insane from boredom. My recovery has been put on hold until the quarantine is over, whenever that might be. In the meantime, it will undoubtedly continue to be an extremely difficult and troubling time for me, as it will be for everybody, irrespective of whether they've got an addiction or not.