I first quit a substance at the tender age of nineteen, when heroin addiction brought me to my knees within a year. It was my freshman year of college and I’d started using it with my boyfriend. Our primary method of using was “chasing the dragon”: a process that involved putting some black tar on a piece of tinfoil and “chasing” the vapors from the heated tar using a tube — usually just a plastic Bic pen with the ink tube removed.
It didn’t take long for me to lose everything. It was the first time I was ever fired from a job. My parents had to pack up the apartment I was living in and withdraw me from college. When I checked into the hospital, I weighed eighty-nine pounds and had bronchitis that had gone untreated for months.
My first exposure to twelve-step programs was a Narcotics Anonymous meeting in the basement of the hospital where I was detoxing. It’s all a blur as I was three days into kicking. What I do remember was a bunch of very well-dressed pimps propositioning me. They were predators, targeting a wounded animal. Knees drawn up to my chest, I rocked in the back of the room. All I could think about was heroin. It was all I wanted. The war stories folks were sharing about their time using didn’t help.
As I attended more NA meetings, it became apparent that there was a hierarchy — and war stories were a part of it. The pecking order was based on the drugs you did and how you did them. Nothing trumped the intravenous drug user. As someone who primarily smoked and occasionally snorted, this hurt my “junkie pride,” the irrational belief that the lower your bottom the more hardcore you are. You don’t even need to be a junkie to have junkie pride. I know plenty of folks who shot crystal meth that looked at shooting heroin like it was adorable.
A quick Google search of “AA vs NA memes” will show you how pervasive this mentality is in Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous — but the phenomenon also infected the halfway house I lived in for seven months after detox. I stopped going to NA and switched to AA, telling myself that NA was too focused on the problem and not the solution. Pride is a fascinating vice — even at rock bottom, people will compete to be the hardest or the most badass. In reality it’s a contest between the biggest losers.
I felt insecure about the fact that I’d only smoked heroin, as if I wasn’t really junkie enough. In fact, I felt so embarrassed that I never had, I lied about shooting up. I told everyone and myself that I did it once. And I kept that lie up for so long that I forgot I was even lying. It wasn’t until about five years into this recent sobriety that I came clean with myself. Why was I still carrying that lie around? Decades after I quit using heroin? As if my bona fides as a heroin addict would suffer because I never used drugs intravenously.
It was so stupid. And yet it’s so revealing about who I am: desperate to fit in. Desperate to be cool. Not just cool — cooler than you. Delusional enough to think that anyone healthy would view heroin addiction as “cool” and not stupid and tragic.
In those early days of getting sober, back in 1999, the counselors at my halfway house diagnosed my drug of choice as marijuana. My pride was injured and I laughed, “Marijuana isn’t a drug.” There was a young girl who came into our halfway house for marijuana and we all gave her so much grief for her “addiction” she left after a few days.
It makes sense, though. You don’t destroy your body and life in quite the same way as you do when you use heroin or meth. You don’t lose your teeth or have track marks. You don’t get DUIs or crash your car. That’s the thing about marijuana: you don’t do anything. For decades. Long after I quit chasing the dragon, I remained comfortably numb — keeping at a fuzzy distance from everyone around me, from my own emotions, from society. At forty-four, I’ve quit a lot of things in my life. So many things that the ongoing joke among my family is that I’m now addicted to quitting. Heroin. Cocaine. Cigarettes. Alcohol. And marijuana. But honestly marijuana has been the hardest thing for me to quit long-term and is still the drug that I fantasize about using. Those damn counselors were right.
I wouldn’t go into an NA meeting talking about my weed addiction, though. I still have too much pride for that.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s January 2023 World edition.