The Glamorous Lives of Heroin Addicts
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The Glamorous Lives of Heroin Addicts


This post was originally published on November 4, 2014.

Life’s more glamorous through the lens of a camera—any life, it seems…even and perhaps especially the life of an addict.

These were my initial thoughts the first time I watched a short video of Russian heroin addicts talking about their lives and addictions— a project described by Gawker as “either exploitative, or a deeply moving exploration of humanity.” It’s the kind of thing you might watch again and again, like I did. I found it fascinating.

“There is a metaphysical honor in enduring the world’s absurdity,” begins the seven-minute film. Dressed in high fashion, at times in slow motion—all under the scrutiny of the voyeuristic lens—these addicts’ stories of hopes and dreams are positioned as “tributes to one’s dignity in a campaign in which one is defeated in advance.”

When I watch this video, what do I see? Do I feel sorry for these people? Do I consider this dignifying? Without the evocative music and ethereal lights, the people featured in the film would not look very different than the active drug users I know. At the needle exchange where I’ve taught creative writing, dressed in the everyday uniform of poor people, my students’ thinness would not be misconstrued as heroin chic. In real life, addiction is never sexy. Thanks to drugs, my students were homeless and hungry, unable to meet their basic needs.

And yet some days I am hungry, too. As a freelancer, sometimes money is tight. I shop in thrift stores because it’s all I can afford. My students and I dress alike. I can’t afford medical insurance beyond emergency coverage.

In many ways, these addicts’ stories are like anyone’s stories. They talk of dreams not that different from my own.

If she hadn’t become an addict, I find myself thinking, would she have been a doctor? Would she still be with that guy? Would she live in Australia, close to a beach? Is it true that people in Australia don’t worry about mortgages?

They say that we addicts and alcoholics are our own worst enemy, and that an overinflated ego plays a major part in our self abuse. When I was still active, I wanted to live a life that was—as one commenter describes this video—“scary and beautiful.” I wished to be entertaining and glamorous. I still sometimes do.

The addicts in the video appear dream-like, as if still asleep—frozen in the time they’re recollecting. I felt this way to for the many years I lived mostly under the influence. Meanwhile, my debt racked up. My health suffered. Dreams slipped away. The addicts in this video seem unconcerned with all that. There is something alluring about their wistfulness.

The film reminds me that, in two months, it’ll be my birthday. It’s probably a little too early to be mentally preparing for my turning 35—not to mention more than a little selfish, seeing as my boyfriend’s birthday is in less than a week. Maybe it’s the addict in me that just can’t help it. Every year around my birthday— even more than usual— I become obsessed. Watching this film, I became preoccupied, thinking of myself and where I’ve been, where my life is heading, questioning myself: is this the life I want to be living? Do I want more of something? (With the addict, it is always a question of more, never less). I question myself until I feel exhausted, and confused—and this is why I drank. I drank and abused my body in other ways in an effort to escape reality. But with sobriety, there is no easy escape.

Don’t get me wrong; being a junkie most certainly sucks. But it does have one advantage: when you’re active in addiction, there’s just one obvious thing that’s wrong. Whereas if you’re clean and sober—or being a civilian, for that matter—what’s your excuse?

Sobriety means being awake, growing up and taking responsibility. It means being aware of the human condition, which is what I think this film is about. Reality, as much as it has joy, is full of disappointments and failures. Being clean and sober means having choices— which is wonderful— but it also means admitting that some things in life are beyond our control.

How would these people’s lives have turned out if not for their addiction? Who knows? Is the film exploitative or exploratory? Perhaps it’s both.

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About Author

Melissa Petro is a freelance writer and writing instructor living in New York City. She has written for NY Magazine, The Guardian, Salon, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, Jezebel, xoJane, The Fix and elsewhere. She is the founder of Becoming Writers, a community organization that provides free and low cost memoir-writing workshops to new writers of all backgrounds and experiences.