View attachment 37227 "This is what scares me late at night: If somebody like Hoffman had gone so long without heroin, and just jumped back in one day, how close am I to doing the same?"
For a heroin addict, recovery is a life-long process. Philip Seymour Hoffman had been clean for 23 years before he relapsed in 2013, and died from an apparent overdose last week.
To many people who have never grappled with addiction, it can be difficult to comprehend the desperate desire to use, even after so many years sober. To gain deeper insight into drug addiction, we asked recovering heroin users to share their experiences with us. Nearly 300 people responded, describing their struggle to get clean, and the ongoing battle to stay sober. Here, we publish a selection of those responses.
"For the past 26 years I've thought of heroin every day..."
But never thought of using it. It never made anything better, just worse. Look, every junky is always "considering" getting clean. Every junky wants to be clean. Every using junky also wants more heroin. Call it a contradiction call it what you want. But no junky wants the life they have.
James: 26 years clean, Sydney, Australia
"When I first gave up heroin, I could never tell myself it was forever...
I woke up last week to the radio playing quietly. I got ready for the trek to the other end of the house to wake up the kid. The 7:30am news came on. I was still sleepy. 'The actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman is dead.' I was only half listening. I'd seen his work but have never been one to pay much attention to famous personalities or celebrities. 'He was forty-six.' That caught half my attention – the same age as me. 'From a heroin overdose.' There I was, sitting on the edge of my bed with a syringe full of heroin in my hand.
All at once I felt a kindred with someone I had never known. I knew a couple of characters he'd played, I knew his name, but that was it. Now suddenly, he was a lot like me.
When you're addicted to heroin, it's generally a long-running, close relationship. There are plenty of bad times, but there are also gems that stay with you. It's like family – a parent, sibling or child. You may swear that for all they've put you through, you never want anything to do with them again, but there's always that part of you that misses the good times and wonders how you'd get along now. When I first gave up heroin, I could never tell myself it was forever. I could not imagine never entering that cosy cocoon again."
Linda: still using, Geelong, Australia
View attachment 37228 "I see what happened to Philip Seymour Hoffman everyday in my hometown...
My father died from addiction, we lost a cousin, I myself had numerous overdoses and helped prevent siblings from OD-ing (all of who are now clean thanks to the process of one addict helping another that Russell Brand spoke of). Hearing about Hoffman affects me the same way as if it were a friend. I didnt know he was an addict untill he died, but when I heard of his story and addiction I immediatly identified with him. We work the same way in our minds. I know what happened to him before he picked up. I know how he felt. I'm pretty sure it started the same way most relapses do."
Danny: 10 years clean, Dublin, Ireland
"I live in real fear that I'll relapse...
This is what scares me late at night: If somebody like Hoffman had gone so long without smack (heroin), and just jumped back in one day – how close am I to doing the same? I live in real fear that I'll relapse, and being so much older now, there's no way I'd survive this time around."
Gene: 38 years clean, San Diego, California, US
"No one sets out to be a heroin addict. It's not a lifestyle choice...
I was a high-profile model and intravenous heroin addict. I copped on the street. Heroin doesn't discriminate. It is unbearably wonderful for surpressing pain and generating a false sense of well-being. I loved heroin. Addicts who say "I hate heroin" are lying to themselves. We wouldn't stick needles in our arms daily if we didn't love the way it made us feel. But when it wears off, you're in a hole so big its impossible to climb out. No one sets out to be a heroin addict. It's not a lifestyle choice."
Janice: six years clean, Middletown, New Jersey, US
"If you are an addict you are either using, clean or dead. There is nothing in between...
I have been clean for six years and wish never to return, but drugs are never far away. For me using is like my default setting. I had been clean for about two years and my father had a stroke. I had a wobble as I felt so helpless and needed the support of a bit of gear. I felt so shit the next time I went to see him I knew I couldn't use again. He needed me more than I needed the gear."
Gary: six years clean, Ipswich, UK
"After all these years, I still have some kind of sick fascination with heroin...
Heroin is a very potent drug. The high feels like a long lasting orgasm. Recovery from heroin addiction is almost a miracle. Because it is not only your body that screams for the substance. Your brain wants it too. Without heroin, emotional pain feels unbearable."
Katie: 17 years clean, London, UK
View attachment 37229 "Hoffman's death has not resulted in feelings of sorrow, but thoughts and feelings of nostalgia...
After been clean for 3 months. I am at a stage now where I'm starting to feel good again about myself and my life. But Hoffman's death has aroused a whole new fresh public discourse around heroin addiction, and I must say that its effect on me has not resulted in feelings of sorrow, or relief, but thoughts and feelings of nostalgia. The fact that nostalgic thoughts and feelings have been aroused from hearing about the tragic death of this great actor, just shows how utterly irrational the addicted mind is. It's not thoughts of relief that I have, such as "Wow that could have been me, I'm so lucky." But rather it is thoughts of reminiscence; thoughts of how euphoric he must have felt in those last few weeks of relapse, or even in his last few moments. The addicted mind is a selfish mind, no doubt, but also an utterly helpless one."
Sean: three months clean, Leeds, UK
"It's easy to think that because you have been clean and sober for so long that using one time will be OK. It's easy to become complacent in your recovery...
I know people who are 40 years clean and sober, and people who've gone only a couple of days, but we are all in the same boat: we are sober today. It's easy to think that because you have been clean and sober for so long that using one time will be OK. It's easy to become complacent in your recovery. That's why I attend 12-step meetings, so that I dont forget what it was like, to remind myself that I'm only one drink or drug away from the person I once was. If I had one drink or one hit, my illness would make me want more and more, something the 'normal' person may not understand."
Mike: two-and-a-half years clean, Bristol, UK
"Every single time I relapse, my life spins out of control...
I've lost jobs, crashed my car twice, gone broke, narrowly escaped jail – and I am one of the fortunate ones. One of the worst things about a relapse for me is not the loss of money and material things, but the loss of love and trust from my family.
I just want to tell other addicts who feel hopeless that they are not alone. I too have felt those worthless feelings and thought I would never be able to stay sober. But that doesn't mean I gave up."
Alix: two months clean, California, US
"The 'War On Drugs' has been a dismal failure...
The best possible outcome of losing a genius like Phillip Seymour Hoffman to drugs is getting everyone to examine how the 'War On Drugs' has been a dismal failure. What we need to look at is legalization, regulation, quality control; making rehab centers far more accessible; treating addiction like the terrible disease it is, and not some crime for which being incarcerated is punishment."
Howard: 10 years clean, Los Angeles, US
"I wish people would understand that addiction is a symptom...
It's a symptom of unresolved underlying issues, or an attempt to self-medicate issues like depression or anxiety. My addiction was born out of an intense lack of self esteem and severe childhood trauma, and my continued drug use was simply terror at feeling exposed in a world that I felt I had no skills to negotiate. Heroin was a buffer between me and the harshness of humanity, and giving it up was the scariest thing I've ever done."
Kylie: 19 years clean, Wollongong, Australia
View attachment 37230 "The media's 'It's so sad', 'How could this happen?' style coverage of a celebrity overdose pisses me right off...
I'm the recovering child and grandchild of addicts.The media's 'It's so sad', 'How could this happen?' style coverage of a celebrity overdose pisses me right off, frankly. It's naive, voyeuristic and irresponsible. Everyone ignores the addict's victims completely. Addiction is a family disease. Addicts don't just ruin their own lives. Everyone in the family becomes dysfunctional."
Foster: parents were addicted to heroin, Orange County, California, US
"There are panicked rushes to inject in public toilets, a desperation to hide injection sites from employers and perpetual fear of a crackdown...
There are different sides to addiction. There are the cold-turkey mornings scanning the streets for the sight of someone who might be holding, the anticipation of a hit, the calm of the high and the inevitable crash into realisation that the money is needed to get that spoonful of brown sugar, make the medicine go down. There is endless waiting for acquaintances whose own broken facades sicken you and remind you of the road you are travelling. There are bailiffs, policemen and rip-off merchants to contend with. There are panicked rushes to inject in public toilets, a desperation to hide injection sites from employers (if you can manage to keep a job as I did) and perpetual fear of a crack down. It is a vicious trap for the desperate, wounded and impoverished."
Leonardo: one year clean, Exeter, UK
"I spent 14 years begging on the streets, eating out of bins, almost dying from infections and having hell inside my skull...
The broken shell of a human I was this time three years ago couldn't have dreamt of the life I have now – it's far from fucking perfect but I can sit on a bus without worrying that I'm speaking the self-recriminations running through my head without realising it, clenching my jaws to stop myself from speaking, but disbelieving I'm doing it. I value mself now. There is life after drugs and it's worth living."
Dave: two-and-a-half years clean, Manchester, UK
"Once addicted, your life then becomes a dedication to your addiction...
The longer one takes heroin the greater one's tolerance becomes. Eventually, the little bags weren't enough to stave off the symptoms of withdrawal, and more and more was required just to get me to work, just to get me to sleep, just to get through this trauma, just to not feel how miserable I was … and then that little promise you made to yourself – 'never ever a needle' – begins to get broken down because your tolerance is now so high, smoking the stuff just doesn't touch the sides. Welcome to a whole new game of heroin addiction, needle fixation and vein degradation. Now the game is in a different league, the complications and ramifications are endless but they all lead to one road, an ever increasing addiction. It's been 17 years this year since I injected my last hit of heroin which most certainly would have been in my neck, the only veins I could use at that point in my addiction."
Vanessa: 17 years clean, Tetbury, UK
View attachment 37231 "The feeling is almost impossible to explain to someone who has never done an opiate...
High-profile deaths make me terribly sad, not because I, in anyway, knew the people intimately, but because they remind me of all of the people I have known and lost to drugs. Four young men. I went to high school with three of them: one overdosed in his senior year, one in his freshman year of college, one last year. They were all extremely intelligent and gifted.
Opiates are especially manipulative, because you get outside of your consciousness. Fears you didn't know you had, suddenly vanish. Though the experience of a drug is a romantic and nostalgic feeling, addiction is not. It's ugly and selfish, because it is so bodily. It is both metaphorical and biological, it is hunger for emotion, and chemical alteration. It is almost impossible to explain to someone who has never done an opiate."
M: several years clean, Brooklyn, New York, US
"It's important to maintain a strong support system...
Every time that I hear about an overdose, it makes me even more determined to stay clean and sober. It can happen to anyone. That's why it's important to maintain a strong support system, work with other addicts and stay connected. It's when you start becoming complacent with your recovery that things can go downhill."
Anne: two years clean, New Orleans, Louisiana, US
"When I was living in Amsterdam at the height of my habit, junkies were being fished out of the canals two-at-a-time most weekends. None of us expected to live very long...
A lot of scare-mongering goes on in the media about drug use. I managed to live a quite civilized life while I lived in Holland, keeping my works clean and cooking up only the best Chinese and Persian heroin delivered to my door by smiling dealers every day. There were many people there who led normal lives while addicted to smack and this is never addressed because a puking Pete Doherty makes for better headlines."
Aidan : 26 years clean, Prague, Czech Republic
"Heroin encases you in a little cotton-wool house and nothing hurts anymore...
When times are hard, heroin encases you in a little cotton-wool house and nothing hurts anymore. If you haven't put in the work to become truly mindful, it's very easy to relapse. We know what heroin feels like, even twenty or thirty years after a hit. The memory of that wonderful warm feeling remains.
I have had vague thoughts that in years to come, growing old with heroin wouldn't be such a bad way to fade out of this life. But those thoughts are emanating from my 'addict brain' not my rational brain."
Harriet: 31 years clean, Bath, UK
View attachment 37232 "I believe in giving up drugs on your own terms...
Now that I am in my mid-thirties the desire to use has lessened. Addiction is a continuum and some people must stay away from absolutely everything, including alcohol – even if that wasn't their drug of choice. We all have different levels of personal strength and self control, so I don't believe 12-step programs are for everyone. I believe in giving up drugs on your own terms, and I don't wake up every morning still wanting to use. The cons just always outweighed the pros for me, and I always remind myself of that. That shit just ain't worth it."
Elizabeth: 18 years clean, Brisbane, Australia
"I have no words of wisdom to offer an addict as he destroys everything he loves for 30 minutes of nirvana...
I am now 35 and for as long as I can remember my father has been injecting heroin. I have never touched illegal drugs. But I wonder when I will get the call to identify my father's body after he has been found alone in his bathroom with a needle in his arm. What will I say to my partner (who has never met my junkie dad) or my friends, will I even mention he has died?
I have no words of wisdom [to offer], as a 10 year old boy or a 35 year old man watching an addict destroy everything he loves for 30 minutes of nirvana. I can only say, that an addict is never alone in their suffering.
Geoffrey : father was addicted to heroin, Sydney, Australia
"We are all fighting life and pain...
I'm a recovering addict and now student, working towards a degree in criminal justice and licensure in alcohol and drug counseling. The discussion of high-profile cases always reminds me of the stigma that addiction still carries, even within the system that is meant to rehabilitate. I think it's a big reason why so many in recovery fall through the cracks."
Leane Guerrero: seven-and-a-half years clean, Moorhead, Minnesota, US
View attachment 37233 "I was essentially babysat for a couple of weeks by people in Narcotics Anonymous, who fed me, talked to me and took me to meetings until I could look after myself again...
I first got clean in 1995. I relapsed twice in my first year because it took me a while to 'get' the [Narcotics Anonymous] program. Both times it was over a bloke. I think I thought I couldn't deal with the pain. The last time I relapsed, it only lasted one evening. My boyfriend split up with me and I went and scored instead of picking up the phone and taking to a friend or going to a meeting (which is what I'd do now). A friend turned up while I was smoking some heroin and took it off me, then turned up the next morning to take me to a lunchtime NA meeting. I was essentially babysat for a couple of weeks by people in the fellowship, who fed me, talked to me, and took me to meetings until I could look after myself again. 17 years and five months later I'm still clean."
Amanda: 17 years clean, Bournemouth, UK
"Addiction is a great equal-opportunities malady. It takes one and all regardless of class, creed or distinction...
I have been in recovery for 16 years. Throughout that time unfortunately I have seen many people relapse some of whom have died. The high-profile deaths do not affect me any more than hearing about any addict dying. Addiction is a great equal opportunities malady. It takes one and all regardless of class, creed or distinction. You get tough from going to so many funerals, you harden to the loss. I learned early on that I will never be cured."
Iain: 16 years clean, London, UK
"I have four sons. The two youngest were born addicts...
My life was a mess and I wrecked my family's life too. I have four sons. The two youngest were born addicts. I was a shoplifter and prositute and couldn't stop using drugs. I got arrested all the time. It was a sad lonely period of my life. I finally got involved in an NA fellowship and got clean. Staying clean is now my priority. And no, I haven't relapsed."
Lisa: six years clean, Coventry, UK
"If something happens to trigger my need, the craving comes back as fresh as it was the very first week of sobriety...
When I was using heroin, very few people were aware of it. I was ranked in the top 4% of my 1000+ high school class and a member of the varsity basketball team; not the most likely suspect for heroin addiction. Now, I always try to be vigilant for the signs of mental illness in others, and help to support my friends who struggle with addiction and depression as I once did. The temptation of addiction isn’t a constant pull that diminishes over time; it ebbs and flows corresponding with the powerful emotions that lead to such harmful escapism in the first place. The concept of triggers is very important to understand; certain events, places, people and emotions serve as a catalyst to invoke the temptation to fall back on one’s progress. I can go for months without being tempted to use, but if something happens to trigger my need, the craving comes back as fresh as it was the very first week of sobriety."
Jack: nine months clean, Texas, US
"It shames me to write this now, but I did continue using – mainlining – for the first few months of the pregnancy...
Hardly anyone in my current life knows my history of drug addiction. My close family and just one of my friends knows. None of my colleagues have any idea and I think would have great difficulty believing it. It is possible to turn your life around entirely, even from the sordid world of mainlining hard drugs. I have a good job, a happy marriage and my son is fine despite what I put him through. That might well have been very different if I hadn't give up when I did. My motivation for giving up was becoming pregnant with my first child (my partner was also a drug addict).
It shames me to write this now, but I did continue using - mainlining, for the first few months of the pregnancy, but once I felt the baby moving, I had enough motivation to stop. I had reduced my use once I found I was pregnant, so I didn't have extreme physical withdrawals. After the baby was born, I did use on a few occasions, but never mainlined again. I just kept looking at him and feeling so sad for what I’d brought him into. Eventually I left my partner – who some years later died of a drug overdose, and brought my son up on my own."
Ann: 31 years clean, UK
"Once you've relapsed, the life you had in recovery seems like someone else's...
Addiction has a way of making these REALLY compelling arguments toward self-destruction and isolation. Even in the face of so much evidence to the contrary, addiction will convince you that you don't deserve to live a good life; that everyone close to you would be better off if you just left and that the only thing that will help is to use drugs.
Then, once you have relapsed, and are in this shame spiral and you're creating more damage and living more lies ... it becomes that much harder to ask for help again. The life you once had in recovery seems like someone else's life."
Tim: two years clean, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, US
"Sometimes I think I would like to shoot up water just to experience the whole ceremony surrounding the event...
My first thought when reading about PSH was a sort of selfish gratification that there are successful people who have troubles. Addiction crosses all boundaries but as soon as I saw the statement from his family, I was consumed with a sense of empathy for the deep sadness they are suffering.
The one real issue for me whenever stories like this hit the headlines is the endless photos of syringes. Sometimes I think I would like to shoot up water just to experience the whole ceremony surrounding the event. But I know I won't. I realise the pointlessness of it all.
Phil: 17 years clean, Brisbane, Australia
"I started using when I was 12, by the age of 36 I was shooting up methadone between my toes...
I started using when I was 12, by the age of 36 I was shooting up methadone between my toes as the majority of my veins had collapsed. I have not felt like using for years but that is not everyone's experience. Recovery doesn't make you immune from life. After nine years clean I held my dead son in my arms. For the life of me I could not figure out how shooting heroin would bring him back. That wasn't ok but I am ok. Using doesn't fix anything."
Damien: 13 years clean, Sydney, Australia
"I came so close to total disaster. It was like I was walking blindfolded towards the edge of the cliff...
At about 28-years-old I found crystal meth and I thought it was just amazing. It made me confident in social situations and whereas alcohol had stopped working for me, the drugs made me happy. But I wanted more, and more and more, and what was a progression into alcoholism that took about 10 years took only 1 year into full-blown drug addiction. Within 12 months I went from using ecstasy, then cocaine, then GHB, then meth, and others and it got out of control. I still thought I was ok though. I thought I was having an amazing life with heaps of fun but I didn’t see the complete destruction I was causing to my life. My first sponsor and I worked out that in that one year of using drugs I spent at least $40,000. In this madness I was still holding down my job and paying my bills."
Brad: two years clean, Sydney, Australia
"As an addict in my early 20s, I nearly succumbed to several heroin overdoses...
For those who cannot comprehend its power, I would tell them that a person can become hooked after using for the first time. It happened to me. In the summer of 1995, I snorted a bag of China White in a stairwell on St Mark's Place in New York City. Three days later, I was shooting black tar in Golden Gate Park. I was seventeen years old."
Leah: 14 years clean, Quito, Ecuador
"When I heard about Seymour 'going out' (as we say in recovery) after 23 years, it scared the crap out of me...
I have been clean and sober 27 years. When I heard about Seymour "going out" (as we say in recovery) after 23 years, it scared the crap out of me. Sometimes I think I am pretty normal until something like this happens. It keeps me scared straight. I double up on meetings. Pray, work my steps and work with my sponsees. I am one drink or drug away from a relapse ... A living hell if not death. Do I have another high in me? Yes. Do I have another clean and sobering up? I don't know."
Cris: 27 years clean, Fort Worth, Texas, US
"We get deaths like this every few months, either in the media or in our recovery community...
I attend a 12 step program where we were all shaken by the Hoffman overdose. At meetings around the city, that's what we were talking about. But we get deaths like this every few months, either in the media or in our recovery community."
Michael: eight years clean, Toronto, Canada
"Whenever I hear of a celebrity drug death, especially when it relates to smack (heroin), often the first thing that comes to mind is the hypocrisy which surrounds drugs and junkies...
The celebrity drug death is always a victim of some dire life circumstances, a tragic loss of someone who had so much to give, while the junkie on the street somehow chooses to be there and should be locked away."
Tom: five years clean, Perth, Australia
"I find it hard to remain vigilant when there is a high-profile overdose...
I become obsessed [by high-profile] overdose and wonder what it must've been like to have broken sobriety and fall back into the dark abyss of drugs. Hearing and reading about it in the news doesn't make me want to stay clean but it creates these urges to use again. I'm not sure if it's because as an addict I have a self destructive persona or because I miss that dark abyss. All I know is that hearing about these high profile over doses doesn't make me thankful to be clean but it brings out the curiosity within me. What if that was me? What if?"
Lara: three years clean on and off, London, UK
Ruth Spencer, Nadja Popovich and Guardian readers
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37 Quotes from Heroin Users on Addiction and the Struggle to Stay Sober