The Sinner's Eye - The Culture of the Needle

The first time I ever saw a needle I was five. It was being pulled out of my father’s arm by my mother as he lay slumped and motionless on the floor. We had found him like that one evening when my mother had care of me. I remember her slapping and rubbing his face before frantically running off in search of help. I stood outside in the warm dark night, petrified and alone, looking into the distance for my mother to return. She soon did, her distressed silhouette picked out the dark by ambulance lights. Twenty years later I too would be laying slumped on floor, and in a hideous repetition of history my mother would also be withdrawing a needle from my arm.

In the following post I will detail my own romance with the needle, why I did/do that, and the places and people it has led me to. In my travels I've seen and experienced an underbelly of city life in all its perverse glory. It was never beautiful, often sickening, yet always fascinating. This is the story of The Needle as seen through The Sinner’s Eye.

Like the majority of injecting drug users I did not start off that way. For me it was an economic decision I took one year into my heroin addiction as a means to keep the job that was funding my habit. My first dalliance with the needle took place one blustery autumn afternoon in a homeless hostel in West London. It was a place with anti-suicide bars fitted to the windows and emergency alarms in each room. I had gone there in search of a beggar girl I knew named Katy and had burdened her with the responsibility of fixing me up for the first time. With intent junkie eyes she would hold the syringe up to the fading light and flick expertly on the barrel. Seconds later she would slide it painlessly into my mid-arm and press. That plunge would send me down a one way street of self-abuse and would be the precursor to over 50,000 (and rising) shots of heroin. But I do not regret the needle and I neither damn nor curse it: as it killed me, so it saved my life.

After that first shot I wandered home with the remaining needles of the pack. I had closely observed Katy and had questioned her as how to cook up, hit a vein and inject oneself. Later that night, after an entire evening deliberating over it, I decided to have a go myself. I was petrified. But not at the prospect of overdosing, more of the inknown, of what lay beneath my skin that I could hit, tear, puncture or damage. Still, I went ahead, cooked up a fix and then naively tried to inject it. Oh, it was a disaster! What had looked so straightforward in the hostel and at someone else’s hand, now seemed ridiculously difficult. Every time I tried to hit a vein I only managed to puncture it and leave large blue bruises in my trail. Even in my hands, with veins the size of a thick bootlaces, I could do nothing but damage and bloat them double. Finally I gave up and for the last time in my life I smoked myself to sleep.

Come the following morning I tried again. This time I did manage to hit a vessel, but each time I pulled back on the plunger I also pulled the needle out the vein. On about the twentieth attempt I succeeded in drawing blood and in an awkward amateurish manoeuvre I repositioned my fingers and emptied the syringe into my bloodstream. For a few seconds after, surprised that my fist hadn’t bloated up, I sat in shock and kind of moved my eyes from side to side, up and around registering things. When I was absolutely sure I was still alive I relaxed... and then it hit me. Up my arm and itching through every small blood vessel in my head. My pupils contracted as the pressure built and suddenly I was there, nodding over onto the table without even having time to withdraw the syringe. But that wasn’t the end of my injecting debacles... it went on for weeks before I could get a clean quick shot and months before I had experienced all the little lumps, bloating and swelling of missed and bad injections. But no matter how terrifying or hairy it got, I somehow enjoyed the process. And more than that I enjoyed the marks that I was imposing upon myself. It was a thrill, and finally I had some visible mark for the invisible pain I was trying to tame.

But being on the needle entails a lot of work. That is if you intend to stay alive. One of the first things you then learn is where you can pick up free, clean needles, vitamin C and filters. This invariably leads to the local Needle Exchange or some equally anaemic, bleached and sanitized place. I turned up at mine (The Old Coach House, Devonport Road) on the second morning of my IV life. I registered and went through the rigmarole as a soft spoken counsellor masquerading as an ex-user went through the perils of shooting and gave me a leaflet on safe injecting. He also sat me down and with picture cards of the venal system pointed out where the body’s main arteries and nerves ran. He said I must NEVER inject around those areas. He explained that if I was ever unlucky enough to hit an artery, and supposing that I survived, I would wake up sick in hospital with limbs the size of tree trunks. Of course, more than anything this freaked me out and my hypochondriac brain suddenly (and against my desire) jumped to attention. In a few nervous seconds I had blinked and memorized every image into my head and it seemed that just about every site was loaded with potential peril. For the first few weeks I poked around gingerly convinced that I would hit the nuclear button. Of course, I never did and since then I’ve stuck a needle in all those dangerous places, every junkie has. And thats another thing you learn, injecting isn’t quite as hazardous as it is made out to be.

The local needle exchange was open 3 days a week from 9am to 5pm. During that time users could walk in and collect up to 50 clean works a day, sterile water, vit c and small yellow returns bins with the bio-hazard sign printed menacingly on the side. That is the idea of the ‘exchange’. One is supposed to fill his/her small bin and return it. In ‘exchange’ he/she gets to take home new needles. In reality, not many addicts make use of this service and the exchange program doesn’t strictly enforce it. What they are more concerned about is having users not share. Like most addicts I know, I never really made regular use of the return bin either. Instead I’d let the needles pile up until my place was stacked with boxes and containers of syringes. Three or four times a years I’d have a clear out and overload the returns bin. Other than the Needle Exchange, addicts can also pick up clean works in chemists or some clinics. Chemists usually have a limit of 2 packs (20 needles) a day, and disgracefully often don’t have ANY in stock. The Needle Exchange, Chemist and clinic schemes are all free. However, if really desperate or if the chemist is out of free needle packs, you can also buy them. That would cost £2 for a packet of 5 1ml insulin points.

But needle exchanges and pharmacies, although not unpleasant places in themselves, do give the first hint of what lays in store for the intravenous user. I remember sitting waiting in the needle exchange one day with two skeletal junkies sitting opposite. Both were as pale as chicken skin, both looked crippled and both were covered in cuts, rashes and sores. They were resting head to head and drifting somewhere very far away. They looked like something you’d find slumped in a mass grave. It was only when one opened the eyes and drooled: “Have you got a cigarette, mate?” that I realized it was female. Her hands shock as she took the cigarette and she stood outside in the cold, sucking in huge lungfuls of smoke and looking like the future didn’t exist. It was a small thing, but something which stuck in my mind and scared me. I had not seen such people amongst my smoking friends. They had all been younger and fitter and frankly, more alive. This was something else... a different kind of addict altogether. And though it repulsed me, such people would soon replace my old smoking crowd and make up my circuit of friends and contacts.

There are a couple of reasons for this, but probably the most relevant is that the smoking addict and the injecting addict are two different types and clash too much. For example, the smoker may be sickened or disgusted to have someone inject in close proximity to him/her. The injector sees smoking as sacrilegious and cannot bear watching plumes of smoke disappearing and wasting into the atmosphere. Also there is the message that injecting gives out... that you are not only addicted to drugs but self-destructive and reckless in its pursuit. It is almost as if there is no hope after heroin and so you kill yourself before it kills you. But no matter what the reason, my smoking friends were soon all gone. They passed by me as if on some conveyor belt into history. With their hands over their mouths they receded into the distance and as they watched me advance to the place we’d promised we’d never go they cried: “Oh, Shane... how could you!”

Well I don’t know? I just could. That’s all. And very quickly I discovered that the universe of the intravenous user was a world apart from those which I had served my apprenticeship with. The haunts were darker, the misery worse, the addicts older and more pronounced. Everything was 2 shades darker black. I suddenly found myself in a place full of mirth, dirt and disease. For the low of heroin I would journey to and through that darkness. I would meet the diseased, the dead and the dying and have numerous acquaintances go down with AIDS and hepatitis. Amongst the army of junkies that I would cross would be the armless, legless, toothless and reckless. I would see men injecting in their penises and women bent over, peering through the legs into a mirror in order to hit a vein on the back of the thigh. In one homeless shelter I would sit and watch as half a dozen groaning addicts cooked up in a single spoon and then all poked their blunt dirty needles into the same cotton filter and drew up and shot together. They would look at me in bemusement when I would shake my head at the offer of joining in.

But by far the worst place I ever had the misfortune of entering was a junkie squat on St Stephens Avenue. It was a second floor flat in a partly demolished building and was literally held together by needles in a twisted ongoing sculpture that all the users living there collaborated on. One could not take a step without having to dodge an open spike and blood and blood graffiti sat an inch thick on every wall. It was inhabited by such a squalid bunch that the consequences of even stepping foot in there would terrify me. Unfortunately, these people were my friends... well, kind of. A typical household would be something like this: Firstly there was Nick. A tall, medium built addict with horrendously crusty skin. He had thick black greasy hair which showered dandruff in the light beams. Nick would take an obscene pleasure sticking and twisting needles recklessly into himself. He had such a crude injecting method that the tracks on the rear of his forearm were huge purple scars the thickness of an index finger. Next there was Grace. Worryingly thin with the skin on her face stretched taut over the skull. She had taken on a kind of translucent jaundiced appearance and made her way around with the help of an old walking cane. A 25 year dope veteran, it took her up to three hours to get a fix. Two weeks after me leaving London she died of liver cancer. Then there was Scamp the resident amputee. He was as grey as the London pavement -. only much dirtier. His left hand had been removed after a huge abscess had all but eaten it away. He now had a useless, half-paralysed and withered left arm which hung down like something that shouldn’t be there. He was HIV positive. Along with Skamp, wrapped up on the same filthy mattress, was his HIV buddy John. This man was so dismally wasted that he resembled but bones vacuum packaged in skin. He was forever in and out of hospital falling foul each week to a new debilitating infection. Miraculously he is still alive... well in theory anyway. Finally there was Jo, a Portuguese addict with not a single tooth left in his head. His mouth resembled a clenched anus that was attempting to suck all his features in. He had the greenish yellow tint of a depressing bar. A paranoid schizophrenic he would eventually be imprisoned for beating his girlfriend to death. Of course many more passed through the house or stayed a night or two but these were the regulars. On a good night this crowd would sit around a syringe strewn table with a huge mountain of melted wax burning away in the centre. In the low light they’d shoot dope and squirt their blood sizzling onto the flames. It was one of those rare occasions where the people were scarier than the shadows they cast.

And that was just one small group of addicts in one West London squat. But the more I got into the injecting side of heroin the more such users became visible. At one point it was all I could see. Ghosts which had once skulked by unnoticed were now everywhere. Bus stops, doorways, street corners, parks... I couldn’t walk five minutes without passing some distressed type with swollen bloodstained hands and looking like Death with the flu. The city became like a Kirchner painting: long, dark, oblique shadows lurking and hanging ominously against walls. It was a nightmare town. And then I’d traipse home, shoot up, and scrutinize my own face in the mirror looking intensely for any signs of disease or decay. But don’t get me wrong, not all injecting addicts look as I’ve described. And for everyone that does there is another that shows absolutely no obvious signs of drug or needle abuse at all. I don’t quite fall into that camp, but if I keep my mouth closed, and wear a nice pressed shirt, only my mother and lover would know.

No, the diseased emaciated junkie is a consequence of lifestyle and what he/she is forced to do to maintain a habit. And the junkie collective that I described earlier were all just that. Their lives and addictions were very hard on them and only by pooling their money, scoring and using together were they able to keep themselves supplied in heroin. There was literally no money for anything else. They ate what they found and smoked from the butts they’d collect in the streets. They usually used clean needles, but if they didn’t have them at hand they’d be all too quick to pick up the gun and wager their lives on shooting a blank. Whilst sticking needles in their groins, armpits and necks they all slurred the junkie spiel of getting clean, getting washed and getting a job. But they talked with infinite sadness and there was not hope in one syllable of any word they said. I think they knew they were The damned and getting clean and talking of what they’d do had like everything else become a little part of their fixing ritual. In truth, the strain of getting clean would probably have finished them off even quicker.

Still, regardless of how squalid some of the people and places were, or how much it appalled me, in different ways I was just as trapped within it. Ok, I did not live like that and I’ve never shared a needle, nor a spoon, but my needs were the same and even if my arms were cleaner I was still sticking the same needles into them 5 times a day. And it was that which kept me a familiar face amongst these crowds. Against any genuine desire to become friends I kept a contact and a presence amongst other users for very certain reasons: they were good contacts and as an addict you can never have enough numbers. But there was one other reason, and that wasn’t half so callous or calculated: sometimes I just needed a little company... another human besides me so as not to feel so hopelessly alone. Sometimes it was just a pleasure to fall asleep and wake up with someone else in the room. And that is why, no matter how dirty some places were, or how foul and rotten some addicts seemed, at least they were there. They understood without question and had an agenda more or less the same as mine.

But intravenous drug use goes further than clinics and junkies and palaces of needles. It even goes further than the administration of drugs. That’s its primary motivation but it also touches upon issues of self-harm, obsessive compulsions, and needle fixations. As I got more experienced with the needle I started to realize that I actually enjoyed inflicting these marks and scars upon myself. That outside of getting heroin quickly into my bloodstream I took other pleasures from it. Often I’d be standing on a bus or train, holding the overhead rail and leaving my shirt sleeve fall down to reveal an armful of tracks and bruises. On occasion I’d even jab a needle into myself a few extra times just to highlight the harm. I know some addicts who even when clean continue keeping their track marks fresh and visible. But this self-harm is not a call for help, it’s more a call for recognition... for the world to recognize you’ve been hurt, punctured and broken. It’s a cry for attention without the tantrum, the tears or the breakdown. I know very few injecting addicts who are ashamed of what they do... on the contrary, they are proud of it. And I understand that, because in that act, in the marks and scars it leaves behind, there is a bizarre sense of fulfilment and achievement. In it the addict has found a means to show a hurt or trauma that is not expressible in words.

It’s now almost 10 years that I have been living life on the needle. During that time I’ve shot up in parks, cars, toilets and on buses. In addition to my arms, legs, stomach and chest, I’ve also injected in my fingers, toes, palms and forehead. I’ve hit nerves, arteries, joints and bone, and have suffered every imaginable lump, bump and swelling. I’ve poisoned myself 4 times with ‘dirty heroin’, had abscesses the size of golf balls and I’ve Od’d twice. On my entire body I have only one visible vein left. In my determination to self-medicate I’ve lost family, friends, lovers, two Cockatoos and a dog. My bank is in the red and so after 34 years I have less than nothing.

As I write this it is 24 hours since my last injection and that seems a long time. Previous to that it was 72 hours and previous to that 7 days. The longest I’ve ever been heroin or needle free is 5 months. But I do have some qualities and I use them to convince the few people left around me that I’m changing... that I’ve finally seen the light. And as I sit there with my perforated escape plan laid out, I busk and dance my way around all the awkward questions. At one point I even promise to stop smoking and cut down on the chocolate. It’s then I realize I’ve gone too far, that I’ve said too much. The place kind of deflates with disappointment and without even looking up I know what they’re all thinking, “He’s not getting better... he’s getting worse!” And I can’t blame them for that... I’m thinking exactly the same myself.

Thanks as ever for reading...

Thoughts & Wishes, Shane. x