I’m in downtown Los Angeles in a neighborhood that borders the Fashion District and Skid Row. I’ve just purchased a bottle of water at a corner store and I’m out on the sidewalk taking a drink. It’s around 1 pm and there are a ton of folks hurrying past, heads down looking at their cell phones—probably on their way to lunch or maybe back to the office. Everyone is well dressed and in their own world.
An attractive woman in high heels and a short skirt smiles in my direction, and for a brief second I smile back. But what catches my eye is a homeless junkie as he shuffles along the sidewalk towards me. The man is so loaded on heroin that he can barely stand, and every few feet he stops and leans forward, so bent-over at the waist that his face is inches from the pavement. There is something oddly familiar about his posture, and I realize it’s a parody of a “standing forward bend” yoga pose (although I am sure that this is not his intention). When my back is aching from too many hours of sitting in front of the computer, this is the pose I use to stretch out my inactive, tight muscles and release the tension. I am by no means a lover of yoga—in fact I sort of hate it. I’d rather ride my bike or run on the treadmill at the gym. But this pose works and I use it almost every day.
Yet in this moment, it isn’t the man’s mimicking of a yoga posture that has attracted my attention—it’s that he’s high. When he is right next to me, we lock eyes and I catch a fleeting glimpse of his pinned pupils and deadened drugged-out gaze. When his hand reaches up to his chin to absentmindedly scratch at the facial itch that heroin produces there is a twist in my gut. I am now intensely focused on this homeless junkie and my deepest desire is to be as loaded on opiates as he is. Never mind that I have a decade and a half in recovery. Never mind that the trigger for this desire is a walking billboard for drug addiction’s inevitable outcome. Never mind that he is homeless, covered in dirt and smells like he slept in a dumpster. He’s high on heroin and my dormant addict wants to be too.
I realize that to someone who isn’t an addict or alcoholic that I may sound incredibly weak or overly dramatic—because how could any normal person crave what a destitute junkie has? But this is the insidiousness of addiction: it doesn’t have to make sense. My addiction is baffling, cunning, powerful and so ingrained in my psyche that it virtually speaks to me. I’m remembering the fun times—the good highs—and not the incomprehensible demoralization of losing myself, my friends, family and everything I owned.
This is the same inner voice that calls out to me when I’m at a party and everyone else is drinking. I hear it say, “It’s just one drink, what could it hurt?” Or when I’m in a stressful situation and a fleeting notion that a valium would be the perfect solution comes out of nowhere. It all seems so innocuous and innocent, and for a brief second almost a good idea. The only problem is that I am not the kind of addict who drinks one drink or takes one pill. Nor am I capable of just one shot of heroin. And to answer the question “What could it hurt?” Well, it would destroy me and all that I have worked very hard for.
These types of triggers are why I have to be ever vigilant in my program of recovery. For me this entails attending meetings, working the steps with my sponsor and being of service to others. If I let my guard down, then I am powerless to my first thought—and that thought will always be about getting high. It really doesn’t matter how much sobriety time I have, this is my default reaction and it scares me.
Getting clean off heroin was a long, hard struggle—one that I do not care to repeat. The fear of reliving it all over again is the main thing that keeps me from relapse. Also, even if I could survive using drugs again, there is no guarantee I could make it back into recovery if I did. An old friend of mine went out on alcohol a few years ago and even though he is miserable, he still hasn’t been able to get more than a few days of sobriety, no matter how hard he tries.
Thinking of my friend makes me remember all the times that I attempted to stop using heroin and failed. Trying to quit on your own is so defeating that most addicts just give up trying, or consider more drastic means. I was once asked by a therapist about when my addiction became so horrifically out of control that I was contemplating suicide, why I didn’t just stop using—as if it were just as simple as Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign in the ‘80s—and I didn’t have an answer for her. Because every time I experienced an emotion—good or bad—I wanted to use. There was a comfort in not feeling. But that is not how I live my life today.
I continue to watch homeless junkie as he slowly makes his way down the block. When he gets to the corner there’s a trashcan and he starts digging around inside, searching for who knows what. My initial reaction has now dissipated from desire to empathy. I no longer want what he has. Reality has set in and I see him for what he really is; an addict deep in his addiction.