Brian Pennie

From 15 Years Of Heroin Addiction To Author, Speaker And PhD

One day, in retrospect, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful.” — Sigmund Freud

I used to think I knew a lot. I didn’t. I believed my own lies, weaving an imaginary world full of delusion, denial, and deceit. Combined with chronic anxiety and an overactive mind, this warped view of reality steered me towards a life of addiction.

In early August 2013, fifteen years of this madness had taken a climactic hold. I lost my job, my mind, every important relationship in my life, and my body was rapidly deteriorating.

I finally decided that I needed help, but the world had other ideas. With too many drugs in my body, I was too much of an insurance risk for detox. They told me to come back when everything except opiates had left my system. But I couldn’t wait, I needed to take action and decided to do cold-turkey at home.

The following few months were the most painful of my life, but also, I believe, the very thing that saved me.

Breaking bad

I was two days into my home detox, and when I came around, I was lying on the sitting room floor with my face in a puddle of blood. It wasn’t my first or last cold-turkey seizure, but it was certainly my worst. The force of the convulsions had driven my teeth through my tongue; that’s where the blood was coming from, and every muscle in my body felt battered and bruised.

My younger brother thought I was dead and rang my dad in a panic. But moments later, in a complete daze, I crawled back up onto the couch, and tried to watch my favourite TV show, ‘Breaking Bad’. I know, it doesn’t make sense, but it seemed like the most logical thing to do at the time. My brain was scrambled, and when the ambulance arrived, I couldn’t even tell them my name.

I have no memory of what happened next, but vividly remember waking up on a hospital trolley several hours later. The room was somewhat dim, yet the dirty yellowish lights still hurt my eyes, and the mature orange walls were strangely troubling. My body ached all over, especially my gums and tongue.

The stink of vomit, combined with the sickly sweet, disinfectant-like smell of the hospital made me feel nauseous, and the dry taste of blood only made it worse. What disturbed me most, however, was the muffled sound of suffering throughout the night. There was a child sobbing in the corridor, and an intoxicated man who had soiled himself talking nonsense as he sat on the ground.

The red fire extinguisher

My senseless behaviour over the previous few years had pushed everyone away, but my family somehow rallied around me in my time of need. When my sister arrived at the hospital she was stunned by what she found. It was not pretty. What she remembers most was my skin, which she described as waxy grey, with a texture like soft dry putty. My primary organs were screaming for blood, and when she touched my arm, she was frightened my skin would break away. I have no idea what I looked like, but I still remember how I felt; I was broken; physically, emotionally, but most of all, mentally.

Source: The picture on the left is 2 years before I hit rock bottom. The picture on the right was taken in 2017, 4 years after I reclaimed my life.

One memory from that night remains intense. I could barely move my head when my focus landed on a red fire extinguisher. I knew the colour red, and I knew it was a fire extinguisher, but I could not link the two together. It wasn’t a ‘red fire extinguisher’; it was just ‘red’ and ‘fire extinguisher’. They were like floating links of a chain, completely detached. I remember thinking: “WOW, you’re f*cked, that must be brain damage”. But I didn’t care, or it didn’t matter, I’m not sure. I had fought so long to keep my mind intact. But there was no more fight, no more struggle. I was utterly defeated, and for the first time in my life, I surrendered.

The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.But those that will not break it kills.” — Ernest Hemingway

The farm

Opiates aside, I remained drug-free over the next few weeks, and I was finally allowed to go to detox. Now it was just a minor issue of a 15-year opiate withdrawal. Like something out of an IRA film, I was picked up on the outskirts of Dublin (Ireland) and driven to an unknown location about 20 km away. As I sat in the front seat of a beat-up minivan, I reflected on my predicament. I was entering the unknown, in more ways than one, but my new journey was strangely exciting.

The detox facility was a little farm in the countryside. The long tree-lined driveway led up to an old house which sat in the middle of eight acres of land; four football pitches to you and me. The perimeter was lined with huge blackberry bushes and there was a tranquil little stream that cut across the far right corner. Under different circumstances, it might have been a nice little retreat, but there was something about the place, something haunting, that seemed to hang in the air.

I was introduced to seven other addicts on my arrival, and over the next few weeks, we’d cook, clean, talk, cry, and look after the farm together. We grew our own vegetables and went for walks around the grounds. There was also pigs, cats, donkeys and chickens on the farm. I loved being around the animals, and I grew particularly affectionate with the chickens. Give me a break, I was about to go through hell.

The mattress

It is difficult to describe what opiate withdrawal feels like. It is often compared to flu, which is close, but with several key omissions. It’s a roller coaster of emotions, feelings, and physical sensations, many of which have not been felt for a long time. My gums were throbbing, my feet were on fire, and my insides were a mess. I was also terrified of the silliest things, as my wardrobe scared the hell out of me.

The most intense physical symptom, however, was the fever. The sharp shivering sensations cut to the centre of my bones. I vividly remember one night as I lay on the bed, quivering for hours, as the loneliness of the early morning seemed to taunt me. I put on as many clothes as I could, including my jeans, my jacket, and a thick grey bathrobe. I got back under the covers, but it was no use, I was freezing, and soon realized that time would be my only salvation. As I lay there trembling, cold sweat streaming off my body, it finally dawned on me why the mattress smelled so vile. I wasn’t the first one sweating in the bed; I’ll leave that to your imagination.

Ripples from within

The physical symptoms were bad, but manageable in comparison to what came next. Combined with chronic insomnia, the biggest challenge was coping with the intense waves of anxiety. Amplified to levels I’d never experienced before, it felt like electricity rippling up and down my body, or insects crawling under my skin. I wanted to run, but there was nowhere to go. One night I thought about climbing out the window, but I was afraid of my bloody wardrobe, never mind the pitch black night of the countryside.

I was now in the depths of withdrawal, and couldn’t face my bedroom anymore. I hadn’t slept in days, and spent the next six nights sitting at the kitchen table; all the other rooms were locked. It was a small kitchen, about 12 x 20 feet, and although it was homely, it was stained, worn, and old. As I sat at the end of the table, I wanted to run away from myself, escape the relentless anxiety. I must have done 10,000 laps of that little kitchen, but I couldn’t outrun my demons.

The nights stretched for miles, and I still remember the “Tick Tock” of the clock chugging in slow motion. Again it seemed like time would be my only saviour, but for the first time in my life, I was unsure if I would make it. I didn’t specifically think of suicide, but there was no end in sight, and I couldn’t see a way out. Now I knew why they locked the knives up at night.

I’m not even mildly religious, but that’s when I decided to pray; it was all I had left. I had lost my grandma a few months previous, and we were very close. She was a devout Catholic, so I just sat in the kitchen and asked her for strength. I’m still not religious — maybe I should be — because I firmly believe that my grandma got me through those nights. Below is a photo from the diary that I kept — the last word is “answered” — I must have still been shivering!

Source: An entry from my diary during detox

The race was over

It was now the 8th October 2013 — four weeks into detox — and I received my last ever dose of methadone. In the week that followed, I felt a profound shift in my being, like my ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ had been woken from a deep sleep. Words such as these had always confused me, but for the first time in my life, they made complete sense. It is difficult to verbalize — it’s more of a feeling — but in what seemed like an instant, everything seemed to glow.

Colours were more colourful. Sounds were more cheerful. Things that were once hollow were now full of depth. I sat on a fence on those October dew soaked mornings — mesmerized by the vibrancy of life — as Mollie, the resident cat, would crawl up my leg as I watched the sun rise up from behind the trees. As the sun flickered through the shadowy autumn treeline, I was awe-struck by its beauty.

It was during this time that I began to meditate and read about Eastern philosophy. I was still at the height of withdrawal, but it didn’t matter, I was spellbound by this new way of being. Even the agonizing sleepless nights were transformed, the most enthralling experiences of my life. I would sit up for hours writing in my diary, captivated by concepts such as awareness, stillness, and self. Life had given me a second chance, and I was going to devour every second of it.

Source: Talking about my detox experiences on Ireland’s national radio show Today FM

I was happy, full of energy, and completely carefree. But why? I had lost everything, with many obstacles to overcome. By all accounts, I should have been struggling, tormented even. I started to question why I felt so alive. Then it hit me. I’m not sure how I missed it. It had tortured me my entire life. Self-talk, the voices in my head — the ones that drove my anxiety, and in turn, my addiction — they were gone. For as long as I remember, I was consumed by overthinking — my mind racing about what I needed to do — but the voices were silent, and my anxiety was gone. I was finally at peace. The race was over.

Releasing the grip

I’m not sure how, or why my mind went quiet, but two things stand out. The first was increased contact with the present moment, and by this, I mean sensory experiences. Hence my new found love of meditation.

The second involved my life story, which is dictated by the voice in our heads.My story had one directive: “Protect your addiction at all costs”, and unfortunately for me, I was a pretty good storyteller:

“You cannot go to detox, you owe out too much money. Sure you can’t get clean anyway, how would you cope with your anxiety. That’s why you took drugs in the first place… it was the only answer then, and it’s the only answer now. And besides, it’s not that big an issue, you always get your drugs. More to the point, are you even a ‘real’ addict, it’s not as if you’re homeless.”

I became very skilled at believing my own lies and protected them with my life. But sometime during detox, possibly the night of the fire extinguisher incident, or the long nights in the kitchen, something changed, something big.

You might call it acceptance, surrender or simply letting go, but for me…

I released my vice-like grip on the story that I told myself.

What I wanted, who I needed, what I thought would make me happy, and what I should avoid — when I dropped my story, everything changed. My mind went quiet, and my new life began.

Life after detox

I ventured back into the ‘real world’ after four months in treatment. Curious, passionate, and completely open-minded, I became a student of life, and set out to learn all I could:

“Sobriety is not the opposite of addiction, connection is.” — Johann Hari

I decided to go to university the following September. Utilizing a program that I developed on my journey, I graduated with a psychology degree in 2017 winning several awards, including a fully funded PhD scholarship at Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience. Since then, I have become a writer, speaker, self-development coach, and lecturer in Trinity College and University College Dublin — Ireland’s two leading universities.

In January 2018, I decided to take boldness (one of my core values) to a new level. I wanted to learn from the best, and I wanted to learn quick. Then it hit me. Inspired by Tim Ferriss’s book Tribe of Mentors, I wanted a tribe of my own. After some research, I reached out to the most influential people in my country, a decision which turned out to be one of the best of my life.

Most people don’t think it’s possible to contact the top performers in their country. As a result, they don’t get many random requests, especially from people like me. I jumped out of the box and had no one to compete with. This decision has led to some extraordinary opportunities, including speaking engagements with some of the largest corporate institutions in Ireland. The picture below is me speaking about creative problem solving to the marketing team in AIB, one of Ireland’s largest banks. I also recently launched my own business around personal growth.

Source: Speaking about creative problem solving to the AIB marketing team


As I put the finishing touches on this article, I am focusing on another new chapter in my life. I’ve just been offered a book deal with a mainstream publisher, and I’m in talks with Virgin One (Ireland’s second largest TV network) about a TV show based on the program I developed on my journey.

Through anxiety, fear, and the lies I used to tell myself, projects such as these would have scared the hell out of the ‘old me’. But not today; I have a new life, and a new story, one that’s not informed by fear, delusion and the voices in my head.

By releasing the grip on the story that I told myself, there are no more lies, there is no more fear.

I am having fun. I am taking big leaps. I am at peace. I am free.

Liked this article? Check out for similar stories, and get the FREE program I developed to make remarkable changes in my recovery from 15 years of chronic heroin addiction.

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    Brian Pennie