This post, while acknowledging certain truths, puts pay to some frequent misconceptions surrounding heroin addiction. All in all, Heroinheads are quite different from their stereotyped portrayal in the media.
(If your looking for an answer to a specific question check out the following link which is a selection of questions I've been asked via email: Memoires of a Heroinhead - Heroin Questions)
Heroin addicts are thin with black eyes.
MYTH. It is very difficult to spot a heroin addict from sight.The common physical stereotype of an addict is a media invention, a visual aid to immediately inform the viewer of a characters most basic of motivations. If heroin addicts really looked like that there wouldn't be any of us left. We'd all be constantly stopped, searched and arrested in the streets. It's often easy, in retrospect, to see some giveaway sign in an addicts behaviour/physical appearance, but before knowing for sure if someone is an addict or not those characteristics could be the sign of any number of problems: mental illness, depression, cancer, liver disease, prescribed medication or just life itself. Not even addicts can spot other addicts with any degree of certainty, though there are a couple of reliable signs that can allow an experienced eye to spot another injecting drug user. Also, keep in mind that for every addict who may show some visible sign of his/her addiction there are just as many who show no outward sign at all. Thinness and black eyes can occur in an addict after severe and repeated bouts of withdrawal, but usually, someone who looks like that is a gothic. In fact, many addicts, especially long-term users, tend to be overweight and have a bloated, heavy appearance. With the weight gain brought about through methadone maintenance (a weird, thick fat which builds up around the face, chest, abdomen and thighs) and often problems with the liver, addicts tend to have a look more similar to diabetics than what is commonly thought of as a 'typical heroin addict'. Young addicts going through their first severe bout of addiction (and struggling to maintain it) do often lose weight, but it's due to not having finances to eat, and not a direct side effect of heroin.
You only need to use heroin once to become addicted
Myth.... and a crazy one at that. If anyone ever claims that they became physically or psychologically addicted after trying heroin the first time they are lying and scare-mongering. Addiction to anything is not a quick process, and no matter how highly addictive heroin is, you can only become an addict if you use the drug repeatedly and daily over many weeks. Many addicts experience a gradual slip into dependency, using recreationally for months or years before finally becoming physically dependent. The actual time it does take is uncertain (and depends on the person) but one thing is clear: you CANNOT get addicted from the first, second or even tenth time of using. My personal experience is that I used heroin two or three times a week, for almost a year, before picking up a habit. And even then, that habit only came about because I started using daily. It's the same story for many others. If you were to somehow go from never having used to using everyday it would still take weeks to form a habit. The amount of heroin that a first time user needs is so small that it wouldn't be enough to sustain an addiction. That's why addiction often follows a period of recreational use, during which a user's dosage increases, until finally (if progressing to daily doses) they are using enough to sustain an addiction. Psychological dependency can happen before physical dependency, but even psychological dependency takes time to acquire. If there are some people who try heroin and go on to become addicts, well, there are just as many who try it, don't enjoy it, and never touch it again.
Most heroin addicts are untrustworthy.
REALITY... by nature, no; by addiction, yes. The heroin addict needs money daily and as the day wears on he/she will consider more and more desperate means to get it. Stealing from the uncautious is an easy solution, though the addict will often ask before taking. Going on sheer logic, that says that it is not the addiction which dictates if someone will steal or not but rather their financial situation. A millionaire addict will not steal your purse or handbag - they have no need to. In regards to lying, most addicts, to hide their addiction (or to get what they want) will lie. But that is not behaviour unique to heroin addicts: most of us lie to cover up certain things in our life, or when the truth will not necessarily get us what we want.
Heroin addiction is expensive.
MYTH. Heroin addiction (at least in the UK) can cost less than someone who has a 2 pack a day cigarette habit. Many addicts subsist on a bag a day (£10 - $15). The average is 3 bags a day (£25 - $40). In London I was doing eight bags a day which cost me £50. It can get expensive, but not how some claim. When you read in a paper, or hear on Oprah: “I had a $1000 a day smack habit.!” It’s a lie. The person was probably never a heroin junkie at all. On the other hand, a crack cocaine addiction can run into thousands of $$$'s a day.
The heroin addict is weak willed.
MYTH. This is probably the greatest myth of them all. Heroin addiction is not about lack of willpower or strength – it is a matter of science: if you put this drug in your system frequently enough the body will begin to need it, and finally will not be able to function without it. The strongest willed person in the world will become an addict if heroin finds its way into their system often enough: addiction isn't a choice. Of course, there is a choice whether or not to take the drug so frequently in the first place, but the concept of 'physical' addiction (before you have experienced it) is so abstract and hard to comprehend that even most users go into this thinking addiction is about will-power and strength and believing they will be the one who'll be strong enough to control it. It's only when we learn just what is meant by 'physical addiction' and that it is a biological process and not a mental one that we realise just what little chance we stood. Even those users, like myself, who saw their parents or family members brought to their knees by withdrawals, we still imagine it is somehow a put on.... a weak cry for drugs and not a biological need for them. It's only when one experiences physical dependency first hand that you realise how powerless you are. So when initially using heroin (not understanding and being sceptical about 'physical dependency') there is no urgent need to show restraint or in trying to be strong. You believe using will always be about choice, that you'll use when you can and want to, and when you've had enough or don't have much money, then you'll not use. Only all too often, by the time the user reaches that crossroads, it is too late as the body has by then become physically dependent on the biological changes the drug has brought about.
Heroin addicts are mostly homeless.
MYTH... though many do beg to get their dope money. Heroin addiction does not suit a life on the streets. To find a vein and enjoy the benefits of the drug you need light, heat and comfort; real homelessness just doesn't sit well alongside the life of addiction. Still, there are many homeless addicts but they are a huge minority. Many other addicts are in 'Homeless Shelters and Hostels' (so yes, 'officially' homeless) though not without shelter.
Heroin addicts are mostly male?
REALITY. There are 3 times as many male to female heroin addicts.
Heroin addicts are suicidal.
MYTH. If addicts were suicidal they could end it all very quickly, very painlessly and very easily. The addict is normally seeking some sort of attention for their pain, as well as an escape from it. Addicts often suffer from some trauma, though I don’t say depression. In many ways addicts are the opposite of suicidal: they want to live! This is why they're using heroin in the first place: to block out pain or trauma and allow themselves to live some relatively calm and peaceful days. Often addicts play up to this suicidal tag and are often the worst proponents of the myth, same as they often help to falsely exaggerate the dangers of using heroin. Being thought of as 'suicidal' and 'suffering', being 'reckless' and 'self-destructive' are myths and stereotypes that many addicts enjoy. They are tags which add to your 'cool' stakes and which many addicts enjoy being seen in that light. But acting suicidal and depressed is no different to sitting on a train with a book about philosophy or advanced chess tactics and purposely making sure everyone sees what you're reading... it's about getting a desired image of yourself across to the world you live in. Never-the-less, that most addicts are suicidal is a huge myth.
A quick check of the arms will always give away the injecting heroin addict.
MYTH. The veins in the arms don’t last most addicts too long and so clean arms only means that there has been no injections in that area or that there are no veins left to inject into. Also, don't forget that injecting heroin is not like in the films and very often the site of injection doesn't even bleed let alone leave huge ugly sores and abscesses. Also, keep in mind that mid-arm injections (which they always show in films and pictures) is a very time limited injection site and you'll be much more likely to find needle marks in the top sides of the hands than there. Still, if an addict tries to prove abstention by rolling up his/her sleeves, ask him/her to drop their trousers.Marks, bumps and lumps on their legs will immediately tell you if they've really been keeping clean or not. If after checking the arms, hands, legs, feet, stomach, chest and neck you still haven't found any tracks or traces, bend them over and look deep inside the anus with a magnifying glass.... maybe you'll find a needle mark or abscess there.
Heroin addicts don’t wash.
50/50 this one... though if I had to generalise I would say REALITY. Heroin addiction changes one’s priorities. Washing first thing in the morning is no longer the most important thing -- getting your morning fix is. Heroin addiction also takes up a fairly large amount of time to sustain, and after running about all day, struggling to find money and to score, a shower before bed often doesn't feel like a great idea. Then there are some addicts like me who wash only when they are dirty, and sometimes only wash the visible parts of their bodies. It also depends if you're living alone or with a partner (especially a non-using partner). Heroin addicts still wash, but maybe not always as frequently as non-users.
Heroin addicts are sexy.
MYTH. Rotten teeth, dirty fingers, hepatitis and swollen, bloated limbs are not sexy. Someone masquerading as an addict may be perceived as sexy, but real hard-core addicts rarely are. For the addicts who show little or no physical signs of their addiction, well, they can be no sexier than anyone else. If someone does (and many do) have a penchant for addicts... for their seemingly wild, vulnerable, reckless, self-destructive nature, then that perceived sexiness is a passive one heaped upon them by the admirer.
Most addicts want to quit.
REALITY: The percentage of addicts suffer terribly (many going to the grave) with their addiction. For most it is a lifelong battle to quit and stay clean. There are not many who don’t want to quit, or have never entertained the idea. Even I thought about quitting... once.
It is easy to overdose.
MYTH. It’s extremely difficult. It takes 10 times an addicts normal dosage to be anywhere near fatal and one experiment showed quite astonishing results: that it'd take 50 New York bags of average quality to kill someone .There are many top doctor and opiate specialists who don't believe in heroin overdose. From my personal experience, I also hold to that view. Heroin deaths are normally put down to overdose for statistical and budgetary reasons, but are much more likely to have been due to toxic heroin or a combination of different drugs & alcohol. Overdose is very common, but FATAL overdose is not. It does exist but is not as rampant as governments and anti-drug policy and propaganda tries to convince us it is.
Heroin addicts are violent – especially when desperate for a fix.
MYTH. Most heroin addicts are very passive and peaceful. They will more than likely run from trouble than confront it. A heroin addict in withdrawal can barely walk let alone fight. Violence does exist in heroin circles but it is around the group of users that have mental health issues – they are violent even without the drug. Not all people with mental health problems are violent.
The heroin addict belongs to a specific economic group.
MYTH. Heroin addicts come from all walks of life, although there are an increasing number of addicts proportional to their poor economic conditions. Without doubt poverty and poor education does account for what escapes are on offer to us, and as heroin is an easy available 'cure all' a traumatised working class person is much more likely to spend £10 on a bag of smack rather than £100 going to see a stress counsellor or psychiatrist. But heroin addiction (or any addiction) is not endemic to any economic group. I know doctors, lawyers, artists, writers and computer programmers who are addicts.
Heroin addicts will steal the eyes from their grandmothers head.
Unfortunately REALITY... though we’ll always try to replace them later.
Heroin addicts are young.
MYTH. Heroin is normally sought by adults. There are young users, and some boroughs/places have a problem with young users, but generally the average age differs from around 24 - 31. This was one of the great surprises I had when first starting to use – the amount of mature addicts. If you keep in mind heroin is a long term addiction (on average 8 - 10 years before recovery) then you'll be able to understand that figure a little better.
Why can’t heroin addicts just say “NO!”
MYTH: They can and do. They can say “No!” a hundred thousand times... but saying “Yes” once, wipes all the “no’s” out.
Heroinheads have to type their username and password into a website on at least 10 separate occasions before logging in successfully?
REALITY. Yes, without fail.
- - -
'Myth or Reality: The Truth about Heroin' was brought to you by Shane X