It didn't hurt at all at first; or I just enjoyed the pain. Whatever, the mythical damage supposedly caused by the needle was so disappointing in those early days that during my first two years of intravenous drug use I took to jabbing myself with empty needles so as I had at least some bruises and track marks to show for my suffering. That's something that is never quite dealt with in any drug therapy, something most users would keep to themselves. But regardless of what anyone says, the marks left behind and the beauty of the damage done is an important part of the allure of the needle. It was for me. I'd never felt so sexual.
15 years on, 60,000 plus intravenous injections later, things have changed. Those early years of easy to harpoon surface veins, being done in minutes, often not even a pin-prick of blood to show for the injection, are a thing of the past. It's the body: it falls to fucking pieces. Veins collapse and disappear. They get burnt out from the citric acid used to cook the heroin up with. They cower and flatten out when constantly pierced and prodded by sharp points. It happens to the prominent surface veins at first, those in the arms and hands and then the legs and feet. Soon there are no big veins left at all and you are obliged to go in the body blind and deep. That's frightening to begin with. Different gauge needles come into play, some two inches long and as thick as valve adapters used to pump up footballs. These things hurt and leave holes in the body that are big enough to become sorely infected. It becomes easier and more frequent that shots miss the vein. The citric acid seeps into the muscle or sits under the skin for months, severely damaging the surrounding tissue. With the main veins all gone the blood circulation must take a different route around the body. It now uses the smaller vessels, which as a consequence stretch and inflate. Veins which were never visible before suddenly appear at the surface and so the IV drug user thanks his lucky stars and then proceeds to blow them out too. Once all the main veins are burnt out and collapsed the junkie next attacks the small capillary veins in the wrist, hands, fingers and feet. The capillary veins are the small dark purple and blue thread like ones. It's often painful shooting into such small veins but not as dangerous as going into the deep blind veins alongside the main arterial system where fatal blood clots and infections and ulcers so easily occur. If the junkie decides on arterial shooting he will probably get enough years use out of them to ensure he dies before ever needing to shoot into his capillary system. But many, like me, will not take to the femoral vein or jugular before having exhausted every other single possibility, before seeking out every working vein and capillary in the body. Injections for such veteran addicts can take anywhere up to four hours and are always sufficiently bloody.
Today I'll be using a standard 1ml orange capped insulin needle. Whereas before I'd have had no qualms about drawing up a diluted 0.7ml shot, now I cook the same amount of smack down to 0.4ml to allow me more control over the needle and have more room to thin the shot down and possibly save it from congealing in the event that I draw too much blood and cannot make the injection. For now my needle is up on the side of the sink with the cap removed. It's a needle I've used at least a half a dozen times before. It's blunt but not jagged. A vein will be a little harder to spike but not impossible. Before attempting to stick myself I remove my trousers and socks and sling my foot up on the edge of the sink. I start by fingering all over my leg, thigh and calf, searching out any soft springy areas in the flesh which could mean a vein lying deep below. I go from my left leg to my right, marking out any possible injection sites with a biro pen. I inspect both feet, along the instep, the inner heel and the arch. The outer ankle I no longer check as I know I've not a working vein remaining that side. In my inner foot I spot a couple of prospective injection sites and jab myself a few times with the needle. I don't mark these sites as they're tiny capillary veins which I can see and I will either get them or damage them. It pains sliding the needle in this part of the foot. I try four times before giving up. I don't draw a single drop of blood. Not drawing blood can get insanely frustrating after some time as it means one is not even close to getting a vein, but it's better drawing no blood than to keep drawing only to not make the shot. There are two good reasons to avoid any unnecessary blood in the syringe:
1: blood congeals and congealed blood in the barrel of the syringe equals a ruined fix.
2: blood darkens. One is left with a black shot which makes it difficult to see if a small vein is giving blood or not.
For the moment there is nothing working in my legs or feet. With my foot still up on the sink I strip off my jumper and shirt and twist my body taut in various directions so as to spot any veins which are showing up in my sides or belly or chest. I have a few jabs in my flanks, at veins which resemble flat linguine spaghetti. These flank veins always appear very promising but are notoriously difficult to spike. As soon as I hit one it bursts and leaves a spreading bruise up that side. It's a no go, but I did draw blood. I remove the needle and holding it up I draw the plunger back a little. I shake the blood into the shot so as the aperture of the syringe doesn't become blocked at a crucial moment. For the sake of at least trying I take a few pot shots in my chest, inserting the needle almost flat before slightly withdrawing it and re-inserting it at different angles. I don't tap any blood. I place the needle back down on the side and recommence with the visual inspection of my body. I examine my face in the mirror. I check around and under the eye, along the temple. Injecting in the face is a real last-chance-saloon shot. The only three times I've shot in my face was to save a fix on the point of congealing. I'm no where near that stage just now, but I know that if I find a face vein that I'd at least have a banker to go in if I'm really up against it. I find no vein in my face. I check my shoulders, my armpits and finger all over my biceps. I twist my arms around and crane my head trying to spot any veins running up the backside of my arms. I spot a couple and mark lines along either side of them. Veins in the backs of arms are only possible to get with the use of a mirror, yet in the mirror it's difficult to see the vein and so the penned guides help, knowing that if you cast the needle between the guides then you are fishing where the vein is. It's awkward positioning to get these back arm veins. The risk is that even if I hit the vein I won't have sufficient control over the needle to manage the fix without the syringe slipping back out. This is where having cooked up a 0.4ml shot could pay dividends. Looking in the mirror, with my right arm bent flat back and raised, I insert the needle and pull back on the plunger. Nothing. I let the plunger suck back down, twist the needle around and try again. Zilch. On maybe the 8th attempt I draw blood, not a lot but enough to know I'm in a small but good vein. I try to manoeuvre my body so as I can keep the needle steady and inject. As soon as I unload some of the heroin a small lump begins rising under the skin. It stings. I pull back on the plunger to see if I'm still in the vein. There is no blood. As I feared the needle has slipped out the vein and now I have damaged and bruised the surrounding area and the vein will not be hittable again.
With the blood I've taken my shot is now up to 0.5ml. That's half the maximum volume of liquid the needle can hold. I shake the new blood into the fix. It makes the shot darker and will make it that much more difficult to get. I go back downstairs, to my legs. I take a few pops in my inner thigh where sometimes I get lucky on old veins which have risen for one last hurrah. Nothing doing. I badly bruise the inside of my thigh. At one of the attempted injection sites, dark blood, almost black, streams out and will not stop. I wipe the blood away, over my leg and then lick my hand clean. The injecting addict gets used to tasting his own blood. There's rarely tissue at hand and so the blood gets wiped and sucked and licked clean. Next I check to see if my left foot is still swollen from a failed injection three days ago. If it's not still swollen there is a deep thick vein that is hittable right at the top of the foot, a vein which seems to disappear somewhere deep, up along the shin bone. It's a big vein, only accessible from that sole point, but is extremely difficult to hit as it is not bedded on anything and moves and pushes away when the needle tries to puncture it. My foot is still very slightly swollen but I can feel the vein. It squidges and moves out the way even as I finger it. Due to the bluntness of the syringe I have to force it in, almost screw it in through the skin down there. It hurts like hell. I twist the needle a little more and a terrible pain shoots up my shin and makes me tear the needle out and scream. I have hit the bone or gone into tendon or something. The crux of my foot swells up like a pensioner's with water retention. The skin and flesh is so tough there now that I couldn't get a needle through it if I wanted to. If I'd had been using a new, sharp, clean needle I'd have made that shot. I curse my blunt needle and want to dash it into the wall. I won't do it with a blunt works today. I need new spikes.
I interrupt my injection to run to the pharmacy. I quickly dress, wash the blood off my hands and fingers and rush out. I buy three steriboxes which contain two needles a piece. As soon as I get back I transfer the contents of the blunt syringe into a new one. Normally I'd remove the plunger from the new needle and squirt the liquid from the older one straight into the barrel. But today, because my hit has taken blood, I want to dilute it a little and so I squeeze the mixture back into my spoon. I add 0.2ml of fresh water to thin it down with, give it a quick stir with the cap from a syringe and then filter it back up into the new needle. With a fresh spike I am feeling optimistic. Tiny veins I could not even contemplate trying earlier are now possibilities. I strip back naked, get my right foot back up on the sink and inspect the inside of my heel. I find a cluster of weak spidery veins but nothing remotely bold enough to withstand a full shot. They're strange those filo-veins. Often they'll continue to draw blood even when damaged, even when the syringe is obviously no longer inside. Sometimes it'll take the shot at the site of injection only to blow out somewhere else along its course. Whenever injecting into such delicate veins it's necessary to release the shot real slowly, sometimes as slowly as a degree every ten seconds or so. The problem with slow release drip-shots is that the heroin reaches the brain just as gradually, and although you get the full effect eventually you do not get the initial shock of the hit. Ignoring the cluster veins I inspect the back of my foot; the heel. There is one vein, small but not a capillary, running across the back of my achilles heel. In my entire 15 years of shooting junk I've only ever hit this vein once. Every other attempt, just the mere fact of inserting the needle there, had left me literally weeping in pain, whipping the needle out and furiously rubbing warmth into the site to alleviate the soreness. I eye the vein suspiciously, run my finger over it to judge its worth. The room is cold and the vein is flat. I couldn't hit it without sticking my achilles tendon and bone. I decide against inserting the needle there just now but make a mental note of it as a possibility if I get desperate.
Desperate? If the needle takes too much blood and is risking to congeal. When that happens it's surprising what veins suddenly become an option and how little regard one has for pain or injury. In fact, at that point, one rebels against the pain, screaming at it and telling it to fuck off while driving the needle in again and cursing and hollering. I give up on my legs once more and instead search all over my hands. I find a possible hit in the far side of my left hand. It's a small, delicate vein and so I change the needle again before trying. I load the new syringe, push out the air, and slide it into the side of my hand. It is extremely sore inserting the syringe, but once in the pain subsides. I pull back gently on the plunger. Nothing doing. I withdraw the needle a couple of millimetres, pull for blood again and draw nothing again. I slightly withdraw the needle a final time, so as now it is no more than a few millimetres under the skin. I pull. Home! Blood pulls back into the needle and not just a trickle. Before pressing the shot home I must steady my hand so as the needle does not flap about and fall out. I reposition my hand and manage to support the needle with my thumb while getting to the the plunger with my middle finger. It's an awkward and tentative hold as the needle is now up to 0.7ml. I put pressure on the plunger. I can feel resistance due to the thickness of the liquid and the plunger doesn't budge. I increase slightly the pressure and one of my fears when going into such a delicate vein is realized: the blockage suddenly clears making the pressure on the plunger all too much. Before I can stop, the plunger shudders down a full step and unloads a good point of the thick liquid into the site. Where I panic I push the syringe deep into the flesh. Instantly my hand burns up and becomes lumpy and white and numb. I'm through the vein, I know it. I'm so sure I don't even try drawing blood. I withdraw the needle and now I do have trouble as I took too much blood. Once again I shake the blood into the fix and push the air out. I huff and brace myself to try some more.
The shot is now black and thick and the clock is against me. I have no longer than 15 minutes to get the shot. Now my search for veins intensifies. I look over my body and have a pop with the needle at any and every possible injection site I can find. I figure that at least if I'm sticking the needle into myself then I am actively doing something.
On the index finger of my left hand is a small intestinal coloured vein. It's the last blatantly visible vein I have left in either of my hands. It's still there because it seems to be attached, or extremely close, to a nerve. The twice I've managed to hit it in the past, the moment I squeezed even the weeniest drop of liquid into it, it had sent a burning shock of what felt like fire shooting all throughout my hand and up my arm to my neck. I don't try the vein but add it to my emergency ten-second-countdown list. I turn my hands over and stretch my fingers so as my palms turn white. I hold my hand up to the light but the only veins I can see are too small and too deep into the palm. A needle in the underside of the palm is excruciatingly painful, and the deeper one must go the more painful it is. You can sense you could do an awful lot of damage prodding about inside that part of your body. Through experience you know it is a hotbed of nerves that deep down. The only place which is more painful than the palm is the underside of the foot. Even my successful injections there had left me limping for a week.
The fix in the needle is now dark black and as thick as syrup. It's hard to even pull the plunger back to allow blood in. To get the shot I'll need a half decent vein as I'll never be able to see if a small vein is giving blood or not. At the base of my belly, descending into the groin area, there are two long veins each side. They're the same kind of long flat veins which run up my flanks. I carefully insert the needle into my lower belly. It stings but the pain is just a nuisance now. I try in all four veins. One I think gives blood but as soon as I push a small blue lump rises at the point of injection. I remove the needle and the site bleeds profusely. Blood streams down my body, runs down my legs, and collects in a small pool on the tiled floor. I decide to change needle again. I will also dilute the fix some more in an effort to try and buy some more time. I squirt the thick, partly congealed liquid back into the spoon and dilute it with 0.5ml of water. I now have more liquid than can be sucked up in the syringe. I will have to take the shot over two injections. I suck up half the fix. It's still thick and almost just as dark. With a fresh needle and now almost out of time I begin poking recklessly about in my calf, the front and back. It doesn't hurt so much here and so I can be quite brutal with the needle. Each time I give up and remove the syringe dark blood now flows. I smear it away and continue. I'm getting annoyed and cursing, making growling frustrated noises every time I fail. And then, just like that, it happens. It's so easy that even I'm surprised. The needle is pushed deep into the inner side of the calf and takes instant blood. I'm so taken aback that I pull the plunger back twice to make sure it's real. Each time I pull back blood begins filling the syringe. Without further hesitation I unload the shot at good pace. I feel the heroin travelling, itching up my leg, my sides, my shoulder: and then the taste of it in my mouth and sinuses. I begin feeling good, like a cloud has uncovered the sun. I let the empty needle dangle in my leg. It's a deep hidden vein, a good vein and I must mark it. I mark lines either side of the dangling jack and draw an arrow at the bottom to indicate the exact angle to insert the second needle. I've been lucky. The vein is well up to taking multiple shots. If I thought it couldn't take even the second fix I would piggyback the next shot: leave the original syringe in the vein but remove the plunger. With the needle acting as an in-line I'd fill the barrel with the contents of another needle. It's a hazardous practice due to the amount of air you can accidentally inject, but once you've piggybacked a few times you learn quite proficiently how not to kill yourself in the process. But there is no piggybacking today. I remove the needle, suck up the remaining half of my fix and with the vein already marked out the second shot takes less than ten seconds to administer. Now the cloud moves back across the sun, and in this low hum-drum afternoon, marinated in my own blood, I sit down to write, and I'm full of incredible words, but not a single one will get written.
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