Ten Non-New Age Ways to Replace What Heroin Gave You
Now that you're off smack, how to recreate that dreamy feeling you used to get from nodding out? Or the thrill of scoring? My answers don't involve meditation and green tea.
When the great, late Lou Reed sings, “Heroin, it’s my life and it’s my wife,” junkies know exactly where he’s coming from. Use dope long enough, and it becomes its own self-contained way of life. So when it comes to overcoming heroin addiction, kicking the acute symptoms of physical dependence isn’t close to half the battle. Much harder is the day-to-day task of living. We need to find effective substitutions for that one single, predictable substance that for so long was the main focus of our day in all sorts of small ways and big. While nothing external can ever completely fill the void left by the loss of our chemical companion, we absolutely have to find experiences in the real world that offer pleasure—because walking around clean and miserable won’t end up well.
This list is one that works for me. Some activities offer instant gratification and answer an immediate need for feeling good. Others aren’t exactly a thrill a minute, but if done consistently your quality of life will become decent, or probably better. Some are easy, some take more time and others will force you to confront private demons that heroin conveniently kept in the wings.
You’ll notice that the list is missing stuff like feng-shui, green tea, meditation, raw-food diet, astrology and becoming a Buddhist. I live in a railroad apartment in New York City’s East Village and New Age marvels are not my bag.
1. Oh, man, the “nod.”
A heroin user’s most sought-after state is “the nod.” Here, wrapped in a dreamy oblivion that’s simultaneously highly pleasurable and non-threatening, he is safe from pressure and angst. Some addicts say they continue to use mainly to chase the vivid internal daydreams that smack afforded them when they first started using. Unfortunately, as tolerance grows the door to this Kodachrome-colored illusion creaks shut.
Now: Go to the movies.
In his classic short story, “In Dreams Become Responsibilities,” Delmore Schwartz, no stranger to neurosis and addiction, made explicit the connection between getting high and movie going. “I feel as if I had by now relaxed entirely in the soft darkness of the theatre,” his gloomy protagonist muses of sitting in a theater. “And I have forgotten myself. It is always so when one goes to the movies, it is, as they say, a drug.”
Tinseltown’s myths aren’t really suited to a laptop-sized screen, so for the full effect go to a darkened theater and plunk down $14 bucks. That’s nothing in drug dollars and with two hours-plus running time, it’s a cheaper and longer dream than the drug-induced kind, with none of the potential fallout. Plus, it’s nice to know what people are talking about around Oscar time.
2. What mess?
Nothing lends the narcissistic illusion of control over your life better than hard drugs. When you first start using, you feel like you have access to magic. With the proper dose of smack, you can obliterate the importance of anything and everything, at least for several hours. In reality, however, the dirty dishes still pile up, the laundry still isn’t done, the rent is still due, and all you’ve eaten in 24 hours is a couple of stale Pop Tarts.
Some addicts make a big show of eating healthy despite their H jones. Russell Brand claimed that “even as a junkie, he stayed vegetarian.” But he’s a celebrity. I’ve met very few fellow addicts who can get far beyond getting enough heroin for the day and barely keeping up appearances. When I was using full throttle, being health conscious meant buying clean needles.
Now: Do the dishes why dontcha.
As the narrator in Trainspotting says, “When you’re on junk you have only one worry: scoring. When you’re off it you are suddenly obliged to worry about all sorts of other shite.” And all that “shite” nags at you unless you take care of it. If you don’t do the dishes, you’ll have cockroaches. If you don’t do the laundry, you’ll have to wear smelly clothes. If you don’t eat healthily and regularly, you’ll feel too weak to do the rest of the things on this list. If you don’t pay the rent—well, don’t even think about it. And unlike when you were high enough not to care, these things will bother you. So like every grownup person, you need to develop the skills to manage life’s quotidian responsibilities.
3. Anxious, depressed, but feelin’ no pain.
While heroin use creates a myriad of hassles for the user, when high, especially in the beginning, I felt free of the anxiety and depression that had dogged me before I started using. But the longer I took smack, the more the very fact that I was a smack addict made me depressed and anxious. Eventually, while my acute anxiety was dulled, I hated myself so much for being an addict that it wasn’t worth the bargain.
Now: Break a sweat.
Everyone who’s tried to stop using any substance is accosted innumerable times with the precept that exercise “will make you feel better.” The thing about all of these health-practitioners and drug counselors annoyingly pressing exercise on sick and suffering bodies is that the propaganda is true.
For a quick increase in mood or alleviation of anxiety without chemical assistance, nothing beats pounding out an hour on the treadmill or lifting weights. Many addicts are quickly bored types, however, and a purely utilitarian workout can get old fast. It may be better to get involved in some sport—boxing, tennis, kayaking, etc.—that lifts your endorphins while being mentally stimulating at the same time.
While I never exercised as a junkie, in my poorer moments, I had to walk everywhere and I ate very little. Like most junkies, my clothes hung off my bony frame—the infamous notch-thin “heroin chic” look. At least some weight gain has to be expected after getting clean by dint of the fact that you’re forced to deal with hunger like a normal person: by eating. Vanity is another good reason to hit the gym.
4. “Normal” people just don’t get it.
While a straight friend or understanding therapist might go a long way in a pinch, only another former addict viscerally understands your random urges to use and your general nostalgia for the drug when things aren’t going your way. After all, daily smack use wasn’t entirely the emotional charnel house of popular misconception, or we wouldn’t have done it in the first place. And there’s just something reassuring about having a friend from the old days who is in a similar boat.
Now: Make a sober friend.
Having friends you don’t need to keep secrets from about your former drug use is essential. For many ex-junkies, Narcotics Anonymous is an obvious ringer to serve this function. As well as being a sounding board for desires to use and working through self-defeating behaviors, it replaces the comfortable fraternity of addicts in the street that you lost when you stopped using.
Others want nothing to do with the rooms (for philosophical or psychological reasons—or because NA doesn’t respect their form of treatment, methadone maintenance or bupe). Regardless, it is of the utmost importance to keep someone close who you can tell it like it is to—without the next sentence being “Um, OK, so let’s go cop.”
5. Leave me alone.
Except perhaps in the very beginning, when you turn on with your friends, heroin is not a social drug. And the more you slip into addiction, the more you tend to use alone. After all, who wants to share their stuff? There are, of course, junkie relationships and “partnerships”—using buddies who stick together as a business arrangement à la Requiem for a Dream—but junkies have started isolating long before they stop using. Eventually, even in Requiem the tight group of junkie protagonists start to use alone.
Now: Mix, mingle and flirt.
Whether by dint of being naturally shy or as a symptom of years of pursuing a mostly solitary activity, junkies have a strong isolative streak. In order to feel like a normal person you have to do normal things. That includes socializing, which has the benefit of giving you a chance to flirt with your desired sex, something that in turn should enhance your self-esteem for the next go-round. So the next time you get an invitation to a birthday party—even if it’s 10 subway stops away and you think you’ve seen it all before—go anyway.
One problem with going out is that it raises the thorny issue of whether or not to drink, which you’ll have to work out with some wisdom and self-knowledge.
6. The thrill of the score.
Many former users miss the daily thrill of scoring—the street adventures and the fear that something could go very wrong, like getting busted by the cops. No doubt, as big a drag as being strung out eventually became, the grim reality begins to fade into sepia tones when contrasted with the humdrum bourgeois reality of contemporary American culture. So now that you have freedom from being tied down by access to your dope supply, take advantage of it.
Now: Take a trip to somewhere new.
The world outside our borders is fascinating, and immersing yourself in a foreign culture, language, customs and all the rest can be disorienting and thrilling at the same time. Even the act of planning a trip can raise your dopamine levels. A walk through a foreign city’s seedier quarter might even recapture that old copping frisson without any of the drawbacks. Of course, no matter the word for “heroin,” junkie language is universal, so traveling is not itself a safeguard against relapse. So don’t forget to pack your personal bag of anti-relapse tricks.
7. Knowing the score.
Junkies take a certain stubborn pride in their déclassé expertise. We are the chosen few with the stamina to endure a lifestyle that most can’t even fathom. We get off on being privy to secret knowledge about where to find the best dope and what kinds of pills will do in a pinch. That is cool and all, but even the lowliest dope-fiend has more on his mind than how many bags will get him through the next business day.
Now: Take up or back an art, craft or hobby.
With your mind clear, you can do more than just coast on previous learning—you can actually process and retain new information. So get up to speed on something. A person, to paraphrase Al Capone, “needs enthusiasms.” Many opioid addicts are already steeped in the arts, especially music, so it’s a matter of getting the Fender Stratocaster out of the pawnshop. Or drawing more than usual or diving into a magnum opus. At first, you will probably feel disappointed that your skills have atrophied, but the very act of banging out a few chords, sketches or pages will fire up those neurotransmitters to do some new wiring.
You may want to get back to your old record collection or your boxes of books. The obsessive care, the unwrapping of shiny packaging, the organizing by author, combined with tracking down old albums and out-of-print books you just have to have, require sleuthing skills reminiscent of copping.
8. A million times better than an orgasm.
Much has been written by junkies about how being high on skag trumps sex a million times over. ”Take your best orgasm, multiply the feeling by 20, and you’re still fuckin’ miles off the pace,” Irvine Welsh wrote. While this Trainspotting bravado may hold true the first time you mainline the stuff, it’s completely exaggerated when it comes to habitual use. While junkies generally aren’t celibate, sex isn’t exactly their number one priority, either.
Like drugs, sex offers a chemical escape. Just the act of cuddling and making out with a woman that I’m comfortable with and attracted to has often lent me the same aura of warm inviolability that was once the sole provenance of heroin use. A thought: Addicts may be more sensitive to such connections created by physical bonding.
There’s a certain power in denying the importance of sex—at the very least it provides a layer of protection from rejection and other insecurities. Not to mention, sex is rarely an isolated act done in a consequence-free vacuum. There are (at minimum) two people involved, each with feelings, needs and desires.
But now that you’re not sedating yourself at every turn, just as an experiment, find yourself a healthy, attractive and horny partner. Then ask yourself, “Was heroin really better?”
9. Not workin’ 9 to 5.
After first kicking smack, the ex-addict faces a period of intense aimlessness and ennui. Your nervous system, so long snowed under by heavy narcotics, comes roaring back to life to the point where you feel uncomfortable in your own skin, keyed up and overly emotional. You crave some release, and sleep, which always came easily with the right dose of drugs, comes in short snippets or not at all. The flip side of this is that you have more energy than you can remember having and inevitably yearn to finally do something with your life.
Now: Get a job and keep it. Sorry.
Nothing will fill the void left behind by the heroin you left behind as well as doing something you think is valuable. Throwing yourself into a job that makes you feel useful serves to channel all that excess energy and free-floating anxiety. And some external acknowledgement of a job well done helps to keep you going in the right direction. But getting paid for something you want to do is a struggle even for “normal” people who have taken society’s prescribed path to building a career. Most people hate their jobs.
For addicted types, who usually are rebellious to begin with and have been sleeping in for years, the problems multiply. So for a paycheck, you may have to swallow your pride and start out bartending or working as a barista. But here a little faith in yourself may be in order, too. For years, you were able to hustle large amounts of money from thin air to feed your habit. Refocused to productive, or at least legal, use, such energy might get you places.
10. I’m a selfish piece of shit. So what?
Most addicts “beg, borrow and steal,” as the NA mantra goes, or at least deal. Except for lightning-brief forays into illegality, I always worked a steady job for my drugs, mostly bartending, waiting tables and a minor office gig. My sins were mostly lies of omission and borrowing money from friends and family under false pretenses. Telling loved ones that I was clean when it was obvious I wasn’t and showing up to family functions high or not showing up at all.
Now: Be a mensch.
Being a sensitive soul, once you’re off heroin you have guilt complexes about all the lies you told to get over on people and continue using. Because face it, as a junkie you were mostly a selfish piece of shit. The silver lining is that it’s not a permanent condition—and people who work on Wall Street do much worse every day, just because they like it.
Now that you have some extra money in your pocket, give a dollar to a needy person, like that homeless dope addict at the corner. Do something unexpected for someone you love. Listen to a friend sing the blues. At first this new behavior may feel awkward, but you’ll get the knack of it, and you’ll feel better about yourself for it.
Matt Harvey is an award-winning freelance journalist whose writing has appeared in Black Book, the New York Post and the New York Press, among other publications. His previous piece for Substance.com was about how Big Tobacco’s research on nicotine may help develop a new class of drugs for brain diseases.
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