The Wizard of Oz has become an iconic movie, particularly in gay culture. Many of my gay friends can quote different parts of the film, but the only element that stood out to me as a boy was the field of red poppies. I remember watching Dorothy peacefully fall asleep and then magically wake up to soft snow falling from above. Did a part of my subconscious internalize this foreshadowing of the devastating journey that I would take through my own poppy field many years later?
In my new memoir, Acrobaddict, I describe the first time I sniffed heroin:
We didn’t know how much to do or what it would feel like, even though we’d done opiates before. But this was the source; this sniff would take us all directly back to the enchanted poppy flower.
How many warnings had I received not to drink from the sacred well of the world’s most divine water? I could hear the serpent calling my name from the Tree of Knowledge. How could we know that a single drink would leave us forever thirsty, make us sick and insatiable? How could we know that it would take away our lives, money, and future? That one drop of nectar would never allow us to stop?
Before I sniffed the small line, I saw a future before me: birthdays, Christmas cards, clothing sales, long shifts at work that made me look forward to a weekend, growing old, running with a dog on the beach, a quiet evening with a cup of steeping tea. And from my slow progression upward, out of darkness, I willingly gave it all back. In that moment, leaning toward the table, holding the straw to my nose, I sniffed my new life straight up to my brain. I sniffed hard and heard an angel sigh.
Sniffing quickly turned to shooting, and the heroin high found a velveteen place in my soul that cushioned all the pain created by years of being made fun of for being gay, a failed gymnastics dream, and my own created addictive misery.
Many opioid/opiate addicts, including me, believe that we can use the drug recreationally, without cosigning an entire life to addiction, but heroin has its own agenda. Physically addictive drugs like alcohol, benzodiazepines, and opiates are extremely difficult to recover from because the mind has difficulty listening when the body is sick and in pain. Dope sickness is one of the worst self-created ailments I’ve ever experienced, and I did everything in my power never to cross that invisible line of becoming physically addicted. However, withdrawal symptoms create an illness that only the drug seems to cure, a yellow-brick circle of madness forever trapping you in Oz.
This nightmare can also begin with what seems to be a harmless pill. Prescription drugs seem softer, quieter, and legal. It’s only a pill, after all, manufactured, FDA-approved, and prescribed by doctors. Our culture is already hellbent on taking a pill for everything, which makes the chemicals in these tablets seem safer and less lethal. How could a little white pill cause so much trouble? Many people take prescription drugs recreationally, like Oxycontin, not expecting to get physically addicted, because we all believe “I will do it right; I won’t end up like that; and I know better.” Sadly, these thoughts cannot stop the withdrawal symptoms that inevitably come like a storm in the night. The vicious cycle begins.
What has happened with our youth is that they are becoming addicted to Oxycontin. Once they become physically addicted, they need to use more, but the prescription drug is very expensive, and heroin is cheaper. The rise in Oxycontin users made pharmaceutical companies change the formula, making it harder to abuse it by crushing, sniffing, or melting it to inject, but an addict will always find a way. Now many people who have gotten a taste for the opiate high run to heroin to quench their thirst.
Once the addict is physically dependent, it becomes a bloody battle to get the body cleansed and ready to stay abstinent. There are many methods of getting addicts off opiates, such as rapid detox or going cold turkey, but with the withdrawal symptoms, none of these methods is a comfortable air balloon ride. It is difficult, but it’s not impossible; otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to write this today. If I can, you can.
I would like to be able to say that my path with detoxing was simple, but the truth is that it was difficult and painful. Imagine the flu, but not just any flu. Imagine the worst flu possible. Imagine that each breath you take feels like it sends shards of glass tearing through your muscles and joints. Then imagine trying to walk or work or maintain your relationships while living with that pain. It’s pretty close to impossible.
When I experienced being dope-sick, I swore to all of heaven that I would never touch heroin again, but as soon as my body was well enough to get out of bed, I forgot the nightmare I had just crawled through and thought, “Well, I wasn’t that bad, was I?” The temptation for me was so strong that I had to take unusual measures.
After I detoxed for 14 days, I tried a naltrexone implant, a treatment that was not yet FDA-approved at that time. Naltrexone blocks heroin’s effects by covering the opiate receptors, making it difficult for the user to achieve a high. It is put under the skin and lasts for about three months. Some addicts cut out the pellet in desperation, but I didn’t. I tried getting high once and put a ridiculous amount of money into my veins, but nothing happened. I was angry at the time, but in retrospect, that method really saved my life. It kept me away from my drug of choice long enough for the aspects of recovery to sink in. I was able to think more clearly and get a better perspective on the life I was living.
Sadly, I had to do this many times, but addiction doesn’t heal itself overnight, just like I didn’t become addicted in one day. What was most important was that I never gave up. I kept coming back, and I kept trying, knowing that each time might be the time that would keep me clean and in recovery.