An experiential account from an addict turned neuroscientist
Sitting down the back of the bus, I’m both excited and afraid. Am I going to die from a heroin overdose? Or am I going to have the best night of my life? I was the one who insisted we should try heroin, so I can’t back out now.
As we joked around on the bus — five skinny teenagers — we tried to hide the fact that we were all scared shitless. We talked about everything except what we were about to do, but every now and then it crept into conversation, and the mood shifted from jovial to a dark silence.
We were on our way to meet my friend Cian. He had done it many times before, so all we had to do was go with the flow. When we arrived at his house, he invited us in. The furniture in his sitting room reminded me of my nan’s house — good quality, but it had seen its fair share of visitors.
There was a nervous, giddy atmosphere in the room. Cian didn’t waste any time. He walked into the kitchen and came back with a roll of aluminium foil, a pair of scissors, and some kitchen roll. Then he took five bags of heroin from his pocket and placed them on the glass table. They were tiny — less than an eighth of a gram each. That’s about the size of the letter ‘O’ on a normal-sized keyboard. He unrolled the foil, tore off a piece about ten inches wide, and shaped it into a neat square. He then scorched every inch of the foil with a lighter. It went black, but he quickly wiped off the residue to leave a beautiful silver sheen. He tore off another piece of foil and rolled it into the shape of a straw. He called this a tooter, and the square piece of foil he called a tray.
I was like a sponge, sucking in the experience as if my life depended on it. Using the scissors, he snipped the knot off one of the bags, and sprinkled the powder, light brown in colour, into a long groove he had crafted on the foil. It looked like a little valley. Using a lighter, he heated the underside of the foil, directly beneath the heroin, and that’s when the magic happened. The mousy brown powder transformed into a majestic brown puddle. It wasn’t a dirty brown; it was golden brown, just like the song by The Stranglers.
“Never a Frown with Golden Brown”
I was hypnotised by this flawless gold puddle glistening in the light. When heated, heroin turns into a thick liquid, but when you take the heat away, it quickly transforms into a glass-like substance, like a crystal.
You can pick it up. You can play with it. You can caress its smooth belly and feel the beauty of its curves. You can rub your fingers along the edges, but be careful not to break it. It’s brittle. You don’t want to waste it. You can even see yourself in its crystal reflection. Heroin stole seventeen years of my life and nearly killed me, yet for some perverse reason, I still revere it like a god from the heavens.
Cian placed the tray at an angle and, with a flick of his lighter, dissolved the brittle brown shard into a golden liquid puddle. Like lava rolling down a mountainside, it oozed down the valley of the foil, leaving white smoky fumes in its wake. Cian went first, using the tooter to hoover up the fumes, some of which clung to the foil. With barely a breath left, he took a pull on a cigarette, and held it in for as long as he could — a process often called chasing the dragon. I was mesmerised by the ritual. I hadn’t even tasted heroin, but I was already hooked by its charms.
Heroin has a pungent odour, a cross between smelly fish and old forest foliage. It wafted through the air, making everyone feel nauseous. I hated feeling sick, but this time it didn’t bother me. I was captivated by the strange smell, and by everything about this sun-kissed puddle.
It was my turn. I could barely contain myself as I bobbed on the edge of my seat. Cian tilted the tray and began caressing the lighter on the underside of the foil, right behind the glossy shard. It liquefied immediately, rolling down the valley like molten rock. I inhaled deeply, chasing the fumes that followed in its trail. With my last breath, I sucked on the cigarette, the filter collapsing with the intensity of my grip. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven … I held it in for as long as I could, then gasped with a breathless exhalation.
I was lightheaded at first, from a lack of oxygen I think, but within a minute or so, maybe less, it hit me: a warm, gentle tingling. A lull in the voices. A softening of the muscles. A faint tilting of the head. I plunged into the armchair as everyone else took their turn.
Driven by childhood trauma, I had struggled with anxiety and overthinking for as long as I could remember, but in that instant, everything changed. Thoughts left the room. Anxiety left the room. Fear left the room. Agitation, and those damned bodily sensations — they all left the room.
As I lay there, sinking into stillness, a thought crossed my mind: ‘That was only one line.’ It wasn’t an impulsive thought, I was still effortlessly calm. Then the words ‘Do another line’ echoed from beneath the stillness. Suddenly I was eager for more. Again I heard a voice, but this time it felt different — as if someone was whispering in my ear: ‘Do another line. I will protect you.’ The voice sounded loving, so I listened.
I’ve always been a quick learner, and my sponge-like focus paid off. I made my own tooter, fashioned another tray, and snipped the knot off the second bag of heroin. It was sloppy, but within minutes I had my own golden puddle. I chased the first line down the foil, but angled the tray too far. The molten blob shot down the groove and attached itself to my index finger. It was painful, hardening instantly around the contours of my skin. I peeled it off, leaving a bubble on the tip of my index finger, and my fingerprint on the inside of the shard. It was a nasty little blister, especially when I bit into it with my teeth, but the powerful effects of heroin were already evident, and I forgot about it in an instant.
I was soon chasing lines up and down the foil. One line. Two lines. Three lines. Four lines. Five lines. I was falling deeper into stillness with every inhalation, as my fears, my attempts to escape my own mind, to get away from myself, began to dissolve. I was drifting between two worlds — my inner world of bliss, where I floated weightlessly, and the outer world, where I could get another hit.
With every line, the external world faded further away, until finally it was gone. In my new world, my inner heroin world, I felt safe. I felt sheltered. Everything went quiet. Then, through the veil of stillness, I heard her whisper again: ‘I told you.’ She was right. She felt like a soft warm blanket wrapped around my soul, protecting me from my demons. In the words of Pink Floyd, I was ‘Comfortably Numb’.
I woke at 3.30 a.m., still immersed in a sea of calm. Through squinted eyes, I lazily scanned the room. Everyone was gone, except for my friend Anto, who was comatose in the armchair to my left. I looked at the glass table, eyeballing the remnants of the night before. I smiled and dissolved back into my chair. As I lay there, a beautiful itch tingled across my body, mostly on my face. I lifted my fingers up to my left cheek, and then, slowly and deliberately, as if in slow motion, scrawled my fingernails across my skin. Dipping in and out of consciousness, I scratched at my face and thighs for the next hour. It was one of the most gratifying experiences of my life, despite the rawness of my skin the following day.
It was getting bright outside. I could see a flicker of light creeping around the edge of the curtains. Normally, when I was at a house party, the morning light used to shock me into a mini-depression. I waited for the gloom, but it didn’t come. Draped in my new protective blanket, I was unmoved by my former foe. Again, I smiled.
As I sat in the sitting room, cheerfully watching the sun sneak around the drapes, I began to feel nauseous. ‘Fuck, no.’ Ever since having a horrible choking experience as a child, I hated throwing up. It terrified me. But I didn’t have time to think. I was going to vomit, whether I liked it or not. I jumped up and ran into the kitchen. I could feel a mass of vomit moving up my throat, and just as I got to the sink, it spewed from my mouth, landing with a clatter. Not a splash, a clatter, because it was so thick. It was like my mam’s stew after sitting in the pot for three days; dense, stodgy, and full of lumps. I had never seen anything like it, and I couldn’t stop throwing up. When I thought I was finished, I would throw up some more. It was an endless mass of vomit, more forceful than I’d ever experienced, filling my mouth and oesophagus, and pushing out through my nose.
When I finally finished throwing up, and spat out the remaining vomit, it was two inches deep in the sink. I turned on the tap, but the vomit was so dense it wouldn’t mix with the water. I swished it around with my hand, trying to force it to mix, but it didn’t work. As the watery vomit drained down the sink, the heavier, lumpier bits remained. I clawed most of it out with my hand and threw it in the bin. Then, using my fingers, I forced the remaining undigested lumps of food through the bars of the plughole. Finally, the sink was empty, and I walked back into the sitting room.
This should have been one of the most disgusting moments of my life, but it wasn’t. With heroin coursing through my body, it was one of my most cherished. As soon as I puked, a wave of euphoria washed over me, just as powerful as my initial hit. Even as I threw up, with vomit forcing its way out of my nose, I felt a sense of ease, as if I hadn’t a care in the world.
As I plunged back into my seat, itchy, warm, and comfortably numb, heroin whispered in my ear: ‘Don’t worry. No matter what happens, no matter what pain you’re going through, I’ll look after you. Everything will be okay. All you have to do is keep me close.’ Heroin spoke. I listened.
I was 17-years old when I first tried heroin. It was a beautiful night, but over the next 18 years, that charming golden puddle slowly brought me to hell. I escaped from its clutches when I was 35, and since then, I’ve gone on the study and teach the neuroscience of mindfulness and addiction.
My message is simple: never try heroin. Heroin owned me after my very first line. It will destroy you too.
Several people have asked me to add a further warning to those who think they should try heroin. Here is a comparison picture to see what it did to me.
My memoir is about my experiences before and after addiction. The narrative above is an extract from that book, Bonus Time: A true story of surviving the worst and discovering the magic of every moment.