“Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.”
– David Foster Wallace
I intend to write this essay in this spirit of the above quote, and in the memory of its author. And to my great chagrin, I am writing about a topic I am sick to my core of writing about, sick of hearing or reading about: heroin. I write to banish a demon. Just about everything that has been written, thought, or said about heroin in the past 75 years is bullshit. I feel an intense need to set the record straight. I feel it is my duty to write one long, lucid essay about heroin and be done with it. Then, at last, I can finally move on with my life.
Here’s the cause of the strife: in our society, heroin has attained the status and the characteristics of a myth. We are taught to fear it, to rank it, and most importantly to imbue it with what can only be called profundity long before we ever learn a single genuine fact about it. It is a word, an idea, which is said in hushed tones, which turns heads, which carries weight. And why? Is it something unique about the chemical diamorphine which creates this profundity, this respect? No. It’s talk, talk, talk. It’s all in our heads. It’s mass hysteria. My purpose here is to trample all over the sacred icon. I intend to bring it crashing back down to earth. If I hope to achieve anything with this essay, it is simply for my readers to have a little less respect for a substance which is really no more special or diabolical than plain old ethyl alcohol, the staple drug of our society.
Over the last 50 years or so there has been a very-nearly unconscious romanticism. These are indeed dark times, and stupid ones too, so we have used romance as a defence mechanism. We are subjected to a state of things which nobody ought to enjoy, and perceiving no way out we embellish and we mythologize until finally, artistically rendered, the times are still dark and stupid but…pretty, in their own way, aren’t they? So it is that every teenager wants to feel like the star of their own maudlin indie film with a soundtrack by Elliot Smith, or the antihero of a dark postmodern novel peppered with words like ‘tenement’ and ‘awning’ which evoke the concrete jungle, the airtight cage.
I used to feel the temptation to write this way about heroin; to produce pretty, prosaic prose which is aesthetically good but intellectually and ideologically bankrupt. So after a conversation with a friend at a party, one night, I composed the following in my head in the taxi home:
We’d all been sitting around the fire for hours, eating pills, talking shit, and drinking beers. I got up and walked to the kitchen to fill a big plastic cup with water, and he was standing there looking sad and dopesick.
“Jake’s not well,” he said.
“I know,” I said.
“He’s using a lot.”
That’s all we said, but I felt there was a subtext. Was there? Was he asking me, in his way, what I intended to do about it, or was he just stating facts?
And upon finishing it, I started down the train of thought which eventually lead me to write this essay, which was to question the motives underlying this kind of literature. It’s bad. But it’s melancholy and, I flatter myself, it evokes a certain mood: the raucous happy party outside and our disillusioned dialogue in the still, pale kitchen. And it has the hip, subversive air which lingers around anything to do with heroin thanks to our mythologizing. But what does it actually say? What does it amount to? My close friend is very depressed and addicted to heroin. Not much of a story. And my instinct is to exploit him artistically for a hundred words that are kind of pretty. Pretty, yes, oh so pretty; and yet the very definition of bad literature.
The point I’m trying to drive home is that in our popular ideology and in our popular culture, heroin is glamorized. We have taken something that is essentially mundane, and blown it out of all proportion. If you find this hard to believe, perhaps it may be informative to pause at this point and spend a little while researching the Korean myth of “fan death”, which has caused many Koreans to imbue electric fans with the same fearful profundity with which we imbue heroin. Yes, electric fans.
This happens in two ways. It is placed on two different pedestals. On the one hand, it is feared as the devil, the most dangerous and insidious force on this planet which will rape your sister and murder your father. On the other hand, it is held up as Godly, even by people who have never taken it.
We shall speak to the allegations of wonder first.
Sometimes sensible, sober people tell me they’re saving it for when they’re old and it doesn’t matter any more…which tends to overstate just how much it matters now. It is a kind of reverence to view it in this way, something so wonderful and so dangerous as to be taken only at the age of 87, on one’s deathbed. It is neither that wonderful nor that dangerous.
First of all, the value of any given thing is contextual, and varies from person to person, day to day, moment to moment. If you’ve been in a car accident and are experiencing extreme pain, there is little better for you at that moment than a morphine drip. If you suffer from PTSD and are having flashbacks, the instantaneous symptomatic relief of a shot may, at that moment, be the best of all things. But for most people, at most times, it is not.
Secondly, the only other argument for it being the greatest of all experiences relies on the notion that pleasure and happiness are purely biochemical, and that is a feeble and profoundly sad argument I won’t even bother to refute. However, here’s three things which are better than IV heroin: sex, music and literature. I can name dozens more, but we’ll use these three as examples.
Sex, especially with somebody you love, involves so much more than the binding of chemicals to receptors. It is an expression of profound feelings which are fundamental to our humanity, which already puts it above any drug. But it also involves physical sensations, not only in the important organ, but in the fingers and palms, in the legs and feet entwined, body against body; it involves sights as beautiful as can be found in any museum, and if one spends an afternoon at it, it doesn’t simply peak then diminish, it involves a multitude of different states of being from the deeply relaxed to the climactic. Given a choice between heroin and an afternoon of lovemaking, I will choose lovemaking every time. Because pleasure isn’t just about the firing of neurons, it’s about meaning, damn it; and there is very little, if anything, more meaningful than love.
Music is so incredible, so sublime, that I have trouble writing about it. As a very young child, I fell in love with a Paul Kelly CD I found laying around our living room. Several times a week I would sit on the floor, right in front of the CD player, and listen to it over and over again for hours. Some years later, I was given a pair of very high quality headphones and a compilation of the 40 best alternative tracks of the previous year. Sitting there, listening to what was to me (at that time) the most incredible music in the world, at a volume and a quality I didn’t know existed, I experienced bliss for the very first time. When I think of that day, heroin pales in comparison.
One more note on the subject of music. Those who mythologize heroin have been know to claim that it’s so good that once you try it, you can never stop. The statistics suggest otherwise. Most people don’t have the neurobiology of addiction, and once they try it they often never use it again. And even those who do become addicted often quit. And what’s more, they quit because they realize there are better things. Often loved ones, sometimes life itself, sometimes just not having to experience withdrawal anymore. On the other hand, do you know of any music fan who ever stopped listening to music?
And to literature: literature is a most incredible thing. It allows us to commune with people who lived long ago or who live far away; it invites us into the most intimate, private recesses of their minds. And while sitting alone in our homes, they talk directly to us. It teaches us, it warms us, it protects us from loneliness…it makes us. The books I have read are responsible for the person I am today. I could never give that up for the meaningless pleasure of foreign molecules attaching themselves to receptors in my brain.
I repeat: heroin is a myth! I don’t mean that diamorphine, the substance to which the word ‘heroin’ ostensibly refers, doesn’t exist. I mean that there are two heroins: the heroin of pharmacology, and the heroin of mythos; and that the relation between the two is dubious. The average adult has never used heroin, does not understand its pharmacological action, cannot even conceive of its effect, and his understanding of its epidemiology is based entirely on hysterical hearsay. Heroin is, to this person, a notion, an allusion – an invention of mind, based loosely on what he (incorrectly) imagines diamorphine to be. I can only conclude that the jumbled, elusory, and frequently contradictory haze of ideas and feelings which constitute the heroin of mythos cannot properly be considered to have any authentic relation to the heroin of pharmacology, much less be considered a valid part of the same singular concept. This ‘heroin’ does not exist
The complications arising from this mythologizing and glamorization are numerous. First of all, it is one of the chief attractions of heroin. As I’ve said, there’s this attraction in our culture to anything which is darkly romantic, anything which is imbued with that sense of profundity. I don’t need to waste any words defining or illustrating this attraction – if you’ve grown up in the same culture I have then you know exactly what I’m talking about. Secondly, it makes it incredibly difficult to have a rational conversation about the drug or addiction or harm reduction. Thirdly, it creates a barrier to treatment: addicts prefer not to disclose to the world that they’re addicts, largely because the world has such a jaundiced view of who and what an addict is.
As evidence for the first claim, I give you the oeuvre of William S. Burroughs, whose legacy this essay is intended to desecrate. I give you Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, Jim Morrison overdosing in Paris, Jim Belushi in LA, and on and on. Like it or not, these are people our youth culture idealizes. Never a frown with golden brown, and remember – happiness is a warm gun. (And emptiness is a home detox.)
The second claim is somewhat harder to prove, but perhaps we can demonstrate with an experiment. Switzerland prescribed injectable synthetic diamorphine to addicts in an attempt at harm reduction, with incredible results for the health, economic status, and criminality of the participants. Try advocating for this demonstrably successful policy to your family, or to just about anyone, and tell me if you think the response is reasonable and considered. More than likely, the response will be along the lines of “it’s heroin! Are you mad!?”
The third is easy to prove, as it has been demonstrated empirically and repeatedly in studies of treatments for opiate addiction. Here is one such study.
What should we take away from all this? The simpler message is that heroin isn’t somehow in a magical league all it’s own; it’s just a drug with attendant pleasures and risks, like alcohol, like any other drug. Stop embellishing. The second point is about the responsibility of certain people in our society to approach subjects maturely and responsibly. This is a broad discussion that needs to take place between the creators of media, and goes a lot further than just heroin. In this instance, however, journalists have a responsibility not to capitalize on fear and mythology to sell newspapers. Writers of fiction and of TV shows and movies have a responsibility not to cash in on young people’s affinity with the darkly romantic, and a mythologized heroin which feeds right into that affinity, greatly to their detriment. This is important in the same way as their responsibility not to glamorize mental illness. Young kids often buy into this nonsense and fuck their lives up because it looked cool and darkly beautiful in some film, only to find out in their twenties that real life isn’t like that, the right music doesn’t play at the critical moments, things don’t automatically resolve themselves because there’s no author of their life with an obligation to a plot arc, and the visceral reality of addiction and mental illness is not very romantic or pretty; like William S. Burroughs and his ilk, it fucking sucks.
 It is important to be clear on what I mean, here. Heroin use is obviously bad for your health, and intravenous use obviously carries the risk of death and other complications, and it is clear that addiction is damaging to one’s quality of life. When I say that it is mundane, I am only pointing out that the former statements are true of any number of things that are commonplace in our society, and which do not carry weight, as the concept or myth of heroin carries weight. There are thousands of things which are bad for your health, and everything from driving to contact sport carries a risk of death or injury; addiction is prevalent in our society, and it has hundreds of objects, and we all make decisions which adversely affect our quality of life all the time.
 “Fitness for work improved considerably: permanent employment nearly doubled.
- The patients housing situations rapidly improved and stabilized (in particular, there was no homelessness).
- There was no fatal overdose due to prescribed substances.
- There were no notable disturbances in local neighbourhoods.
- There were significant economic benefits in terms of savings per patient-day, owing to marked reductions in legal and health costs.
- Among participants there was a marked decrease in crime of all kinds, from shoplifting to drug dealing – in the case of hard drugs from 46.9 percent to 8.2 percent.
- Overall, offenses dropped by 68 percent. According to the Central Criminal Register, the number of convictions dropped by 80 percent among addicts enrolled in the program.”
– From In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Dr. Gabor Mate