I grew up in a typical, idyllic white suburbia of the 90s. Everything I knew about drugs was fed to me through public service announcements and the D.A.R.E. program. As far as I know, their borderline-hysteric “Just Say No” campaigns didn’t keep anyone of my generation from trying cigarettes or beer the first time they were offered.
While the “this is your brain on drugs” ad featuring two eggs in a frying pan was a few years before my time, there is one warning in particular I recall with shocking clarity. The summer between fifth and sixth grade, the same ad ran on the back of every teen magazine — a 70s-styled daisy hogged most of the page. In the center of bulbous flower petals, each a different color of the rainbow, a big black hippie font cautioned: “It only takes once!” Beneath the bright colors and bubbly letters, fine print clarified: You only had to shoot up once to become a full-blown junkie. The message was further reinforced by the overweight she-cop that took over our class once a week, reciting material directly from the D.A.R.E. workbooks.
I remember it vividly because this was a horrifying idea.
Nothing else I came across painted a rosy picture of narcotic use and addiction, either. Young adult fiction was overflowing with stories of dysfunctional teens. There was plenty of delinquent behavior to savor in those pages: teen pregnancy, eating disorders, runaways, rampant drug abuse. The plotlines never varied much; a good kid met a bad kid and slowly spiraled into degeneracy. Teen relationships always started out well then went horribly awry; lots of short-lived break-ups and sex for cash, crying and sleeping in stairwells or doorways. Still, these books almost made it seem as if there weren’t any real consequences. Rarely did a main character return home in a body bag — the hero always wound up redeemed, somehow; reverting to their former, “good” self by the last page.
I realize the idea of runaway teen lovers becoming slaves to the needle and escaping unscathed is laughable, but these novels were my General Hospital — unlikely and unbelievable, a fictitious window into a world I’d never known. The message of those modern Aesop’s fables was thinly veiled, but effective. Though I toyed with dangerous behaviors throughout adolescence, when it came to heroin, I never made it past the terrifying mythology sold to me at age eleven. As a white middle-class fifth grader, I had no reason not to buy in. “Thanks, but no thanks,” I thought.
It’s probably for the best that these messages from Partnership for a Drug-Free America were drilled into my head long before I got my hands on a copy of Junky. William Burroughs’ book painted a radically different picture of heroin addiction than any of the anti-drug propaganda or documentaries I’d ever seen. I picked up a copy off a friend’s bookshelf one night and didn’t bother reading it until I was in the midst of an inexorable bout of depression.
In retrospect, this probably was not the best time to be reading a book written by a critically acclaimed addict. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disturbed by my heightened curiosity in the drug, but its sudden, intense appeal is clear to me now: in theory, it offered reprieve from the ever-present and overwhelming anguish I was experiencing. Heroin could be my escape hatch. “Perhaps all pleasure is only relief,” Burroughs wrote. The idea of anything resembling relief sounded a lot like pleasure to me.
While the complete lack of emotional sensation detailed by Burroughs intrigued me, I couldn’t get past the idea of putting needle to vein until I came across a pseudonymously written article. It detailed the author’s experiences of scoring (and subsequently snorting) heroin while holed up in New York hotels for weekend-long forays into the land of Zero Fucks Given.
“You don’t wake up one morning and decide to be a drug addict,” Burroughs said. The line caught my attention. His statement rang true; certainly no one set out to be a junkie, just as no one sets out to be sad all the time.
Between Junky and the newly discovered article, I pondered the possibility of toeing the line between recreational use and addiction. Was it possible? “Michael” labeled himself a casual user, and even Burroughs seemed to agree it was possible: “It takes at least three months’ shooting twice a day to get any habit at all.” Furthermore, he insisted that a habit should not be confused with the creation of an addict — the fallen and resurrected types found in the YA Fiction of which I was so fond: “I think it no exaggeration to say it takes about a year and several hundred injections to make an addict.”
Could I dabble like “Michael” without becoming William? Was the daisy from Drug-Free America spouting propaganda or the straight dope? As the depths of my depression grew, so did my efforts to learn more about the casual use of the big H. I wasn’t quite prepared to make the buy, but the idea steadily gained traction.
Until, as usual, reality squashed fantasy and I was forced to reassess.
While eyeing a pair of crust punks on the subway, a quote I’d underlined and later copied into my phone came to mind. “I tried it as a matter of curiosity,” Burroughs had said, and I felt that. What’s this all about? Is it fun? More importantly, could it give me the illusion, no matter how short-lived, that life is beautiful?
Watching the pasty girl slowly unwrap a Jolly Rancher lollipop, my heavily romanticized idea of drugged out apathy begins to fall apart. Either the layers of tattered clothing are really slowing her down, or she’s about to pass out in her seat. She struggles to shove the sugary red rectangle into her mouth before nodding off, her head snapping forward. I wonder if she’ll choke to death on that sucker.
Could anything about going out with the taste of synthetic cherry sweets in your mouth be as glamorous or fun as I wanted heroin to be?
“You become a narcotics addict because you do not have strong motivations in the other direction. Junk wins by default.” The default was looking awfully depressing in the flesh. The crust-junky’s sweatered street dog crawled beneath the train bench, and my eyes were draw to the boyfriend’s catatonic, slackened face resting heavily against the pole to his right. Nothing about this couple looked happy — it looked like they were at the end of the road.
Hard as it was to watch them without feeling something between sympathetic and sorrowful, I didn’t feel compelled to look away. With their sleeves rolled down, I could barely see enough of their skin to think of them as people; tattooed hands and faces caked in dirt, weeks worth of grime beneath the edges of their ragged fingernails. Watching them swim in and out of their narcotic haze, it became hard to align the lifestyle of the two people before me with the affectlessness described by Burroughs. Perhaps this, like so many things I found tantalizing in print, was not all that desirable.
I could swear Bill also said that heroin was “not a means of increased enjoyment of life,” but if not a means for enjoyment, what was it? Surely all addicts relished in the sensation — at the outset, at least. But as Burroughs said, you don’t decide to be a drug fiend: you wake up sick one morning, and that’s when you’ve become an addict.
“I drifted along taking shots when I could score. I ended up hooked. Most addicts I have talked to report a similar experience. They did not start using drugs for any reason they can remember. They just drifted along until they got hooked. “
And that was my real issue: I desperately wanted to just drift aimlessly, safely enveloped by the fuzzy indifference I’d read about. I would be the type to nurture that lack of sensation, prepared to keep it from ending by whatever means necessary, anxious and always prepared to re-up.
The problem with shifting from idealizing to actively seeking that level of apathy, I realized, was the knowledge that once acquainted, I could never be convinced to give it up. Exiting the train, I put the idea to bed, much like the couple I last saw slumped over in the seats of the MTA.