Just The Once

In a series of experiments on her own body, Emily Jenkins, a New York student and aerobics teacher, shaved her head, deprived herself of sleep, tattooed her arms, hallucinated in an isolation tank - and, as she recounts here, took heroin
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The Independent Culture
I KNOW three people who snort heroin regularly. Or who have done so until recently. I probably know more, but it isn't cocktail- party chat. Even when everyone is full of alcohol and anti- depressants, and most of them are getting a little snort of something in the privacy of the lavatories, heroin use is kept under wraps. All three of my friends who use it live in big cities and hold arty jobs that get them invited to parties given by struggling magazines and famous raconteurs. None of them fits my idea of a user, which is probably why they don't talk about it much. There's a taboo attached to heroin that doesn't apply to other drugs.

When I first found out these friends of mine used heroin, I was a little shocked. Still, I imagined that they did what I did when I tried drugs in college - I'd see what it was like, feel rebellious and cool, sleep it off. Been there, done that. Why do it again? But soon it became clear that a woman I've known since I first moved to New York has capped every day with heroin for nearly half a year. And my friend Jeff is telling me he's been off for three months now, but he had been doing a bag every single night.

Jeff and his girlfriend, Rachel, would take heroin regularly for about a month, take a month off, start again. The first few days back would feel great, but then Jeff would almost stop noticing it, would sit around and watch TV, drink beers with friends, even work at his computer. He wouldn't let himself increase his dosage - many addicts do 10 bags a day - so after a few weeks the effects became barely perceptible. Still, he says he definitely has a dependence, and suffered withdrawal each time he stopped. Pain in his fingers. Now that he's clean, he sleeps better, his skin isn't so dry, his weight is up. He's even started jogging.

Jeff's vision of heroin addiction is a seductive one. It seems to stem from a hunger for grand experience, an illicit, expanded understanding. Talking to him, I forget the history of lives cut short by overdose, rock stars and runaways lying choking and bloated on bathroom floors. I forget the junkie kid lolling on a corner in the East Village, hair spiked like Johnny Rotten, patting a sad-looking dog and holding a cup of change. Instead, I think of heroin's other history. I think of Sherlock Holmes alternating cocaine and morphine, heroin's chemical cousin. Holmes injects in pursuit of the life of the mind: "Give me the most abstruse cryptogram, or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere," he tells Watson. "I can dispense then with artificial stimulants. But I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation." I think, too, of Samuel Coleridge and "Kubla Khan", and of Thomas De Quincey, whose narcotic hallucinations fuelled Confessions of an English Opium- Eater, the most interesting autobiography of the 19th century. "I do not readily believe," he wrote, "that any man, having once tasted the divine luxuries of opium, will afterwards descend to the gross and mortal enjoyments of alcohol ..."

Jeff phones to tell me he's got me some to try. He says he'll do it with me. He can do it casually, he swears. It won't be a problem.

"What about me? What if I throw up on your floor?" I ask.

"That's OK with me," he says cheerfully. "Don't be nervous." I hang up, and am overwhelmed with fear.

What exactly am I afraid of?

Last autumn I was sitting in my apartment drinking beer and reading poetry when a woman started to scream in my hallway. Crowding into the fluorescent- lit passage with two men from across the way and an old man or two from the top floor, I saw a man lying on the hall tiles. He lived in the building; I had said hello to him and his girlfriend on the stairway. He sometimes played the guitar out on the fire escape. His face was deadly blue.

The girlfriend, a redhead, was screaming, trying to get him to sit up. "No, honey," I said to her. "The oxygen has to go to his brain. We need to lie him down." He slid to the floor, his head banging lightly, and I started mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

"Is he on any drugs or something?" asked a heavy-set, moustached man whose dogs were trying to run out into the hall.

"Yeah," she answered, as I put my mouth on his and heard the air rasp into his lungs. "He's on heroin." His stubble scratched my lips. His pulse was slowing. The redhead kept saying it must be his asthma. There was nothing to do but keep on breathing into him and wait for the ambulance to arrive.

Scott the Junkie died shortly after the ambulance people took over from me.

Seconds later, he was shot back to life with a needle full of adrenaline. "Welcome back from hell, Scott," barked a pink-faced policeman who had followed the ambulance workers up the stairs. His young partner quizzed the redhead about her dosage.

"I don't have heroin in my system," she said. "I got into a methadone programme last week. They took me because I'm a girl, but he" - she pointed to the body on the floor - "he got put on the waiting list."

"Who is he?" asked the cop.

"My husband," she answered.

"I got asthma," muttered Scott as soon as his eyes fluttered open.

"We didn't give you for asthma," a uniformed woman wearing rubber gloves scolded him. "We gave you for heroin, and that's what worked, Scott. How much did you take?"

"Not that much. Just a bag," the redhead answered for him. "There musta been something in it. I came home and he was passed out on the couch." There had been stories in the news that week about China Cat, a super- pure heroin that was causing a lot of junkies to miscalculate their dosage.

As soon as Scott sat up, I ran back into my apartment and spat, in the sink. Over and over, I rinsed my mouth out, as if I could wash the death and drugs off my lips. I brushed my teeth and threw the toothbrush in the bin.

In the months after, I would pass Scott and his girl on the street and in the stairwell. They never seemed to see me. Then, one day, she was moving things - rubbish bags, stacks of LPs - out into the hallway. Three cats and a ratty little dog wound around her feet. She stopped working and called to me. "Hey! Are you the one who ... ?"

"Yes," I told her. "I am."

"Thanks," she smiled. "He's not here anymore. His dad and his brother kidnapped him into rehab. They just drove up one day and threw him in the car. They don't care that I'm pregnant. They don't want him to see me at all, even with the baby coming, but I know he loves me."

"Are you moving out?" I asked her.

"Getting kicked out is more like it." She pointed down at the cats. "I've got friends to take these two, `cause they're pure-bred Abyssinians, but nobody wants Babydoll. The people I'm staying with won't let me bring her. Do you know anyone who will take her?" Babydoll, a black-and-white longhair, gazed up at me.

"I have two already," I said, which was true. But really I was afraid of the redhead girl, didn't want to take care of her any more than I already had, didn't want to nurse her cat for her and tell her my name and number. Her addiction was so overwhelming to me that even having her downstairs was too close for comfort - knowing that behind closed doors she and Scott had been sniffing down their rent money, drooling on the couch cushions, festering in their apartment like ancient invalids when they were barely legal drinkers.

The image of heroin in our culture, or at least the image I have of it, is as a sort of monstrous gateway to an unquenchable need: once you've tried it, addiction can be startlingly quick, and once you succumb, you can't ever get enough.

I am incredibly nervous all day before going to Jeff's. When I think about what I am afraid of, I am somewhat surprised at myself. Heroin and its fellow opiates were prescribed for years as analgesics before they were made illegal; if a doctor, warning me gently about the side-effect of nausea, had given me this same drug as a pain-killer, I would have no fear whatsoever. That official sanction would mean a great deal to me, because my fear is based in some way on heroin's illegality, its status - new this century - as a street substance, a drug for homeless kids and rock stars, the substance of choice for suicides. I do not fear I will like it too much. I do not fear becoming addicted. I am scared of the idea of it, and also of what heroin might make me in a more immediate sense: a ball of chemically induced jelly, an infantile adult.

I arrive as Jeff and Rachel are ordering food to be delivered from an Italian restaurant. They ask me if I want some, but Jeff advises me to eat conservatively, and as little as possible. I have a piece of banana bread and some soda water while they get out the drug.

It comes in a zip-lock plastic bag. Inside that is a paper bag which contains a tiny amount of powder, barely enough to make two thin lines on the back of a coffee-table book. The dregs have to be scraped carefully off the paper with a credit card. We snort with a $20 bill, crisp from the cashpoint machine. "I've developed a Pavlovian response to the smell of money," Jeff says, laughing.

They buy their drugs on the street. "You tell them you want D, which is heroin," Rachel explains, "as opposed to C, which is cocaine." Tonight they have a brand called Paradise, but they used to do Fire, which you can't get anymore - all the dealers had been busted. Other brands are called things like Snake Eyes or Lethal Injection. I ask them why they don't use one of those delivery services, by which a clean-cut young man with a briefcase will bring drugs to your door. They say those briefcase guys usually won't deal heroin.

We breathe the lines in gradually, the way you'd sip a drink. My friends have become eager conductors of my drug trip. "Do you feel anything?" they ask solicitously. "Maybe she should do a little more. Emily, your pupils are very small. That's a sign!"

I feel almost proud when my stomach begins to feel queasy, in the sort of way that makes me feel like nesting on the couch with a cup of tea. Oh, delicious couch. These are the best cushions and this is my very own spot to sit in for as long as I want. It is very warm. My hands are giving off heat. My eyes itch, like a mild pollen allergy on a summer day. I feel talkative without emotion, tell long stories that might be funny or sad but seem neither, relish my couch. I attack the little pile of beige powder.

"Don't snort it quite so hard," Rachel recommends.

"Don't drag the bottom of the dollar bill on the book," says Jeff, walking by on his way to the kitchen. "You should snort harder." He stops to steal Rachel's minestrone away from her. "I'm not sure you should be having this," he says, slurping it down. She giggles and tries to make him give it back.

At their college, heroin was a recreational drug the way cocaine was at mine. After college some people, aspiring novelists with trust funds mostly, began to inject, and to use heroin with coke. Rachel says the combination aids serious usage, because you feel energetic enough to go out; in a way, cocaine makes the heroin addict more functional. She has tried it only once, shooting up a speedball. She says it was the most intense drug experience she's ever had. She and Jeff are wary of the combination, though; an ex-addict told them you can spend the rest of your life chasing the high you got from that first speedball, and never find it. They are also wary of injecting. One of the aspiring novelists died last February after spending most of his inheritance on heroin. He was "sort of in the process of cleaning up". Another went into rehab and now doesn't even drink. Two nearly killed themselves. A number supplement their heroin usage with serious alcoholism.

Jeff and Rachel are what hard users term "chippers" - that is, dabblers. What that means right now is that Jeff and Rachel form a heroin club of two. No social scene supports their consumption. It's uncomfortable for them to be in the company of heavy users, and no one they know uses lightly. So they do it together, at home. "But don't write that I'm a chipper!" cries Jeff, who by 10pm is showing me pictures of himself in a bathing suit and lifting up his shirt to show how his stomach has bloated since his youth. I reciprocate and tell a long, inappropriate story about how my ex-boyfriend wouldn't sit next to me on aeroplanes, which Jeff and Rachel find more fascinating than they should.

"Is the ice-cream store still open?" wonders Rachel. We decide to venture out. As I get my coat on, something hits me. A wave of tainted energy swirls about and agitates a kind of magnetic silt that had settled within me as I nested on the couch. It vibrates through my limbs with a nearly sexual buzz, but more like an afterglow than like desire. We get in the lift. Going down, I feel dizzy, sick. I experience an overwhelming need to be still again. Once outside, the end of the block stretches away from me. I cannot reach it. Jeff's building is very kind, and holds me up when I ask it for support. I'll stay here. Just for a bit. Rachel sets off by herself. Jeff keeps me company as I glue myself to the bricks. The cold air is the only thing that prevents me from melting into a puddle and oozing into the gutter.

Rachel returns and they convince me to venture back upstairs. It is pretty scary. My feet are on solid ground, but my body tips like liquid from side to side. I bend my knees to give my stomach a smooth ride. When I'm back on the couch, though, life is groovy again. What was I worried about? Sick? Who felt sick? Rachel is eating mango sorbet and talking to me about hair stylists. Jeff is jealous that I'm more interested in the merits of pomade than in looking at his stack of record albums, but I could not crawl over to the stereo. I am in hibernation on the couch. He makes an announcement. "We are making Emily talk too much. She's not getting the full experience. We all have to stop talking and lie down and try to nod off."

"Jeff!" Rachel purrs at him. "You are being such a drug fascist." But she goes over to the TV and starts playing video games while he and I sit with our heads leaning back on cushions.

Nodding off into a heroin stupor, Jeff tells me, is the best part. You see all sorts of pictures floating before you. "This is the point, Emily, where you close your eyes, have a little dream, and start to write `Kubla Khan'. Then a stranger comes along, interrupts you, and you can't finish it."

We lie there. Rachel talks. Jeff tells her to shhh. Then he talks. I tell him to shhh. Be quiet. No, you be quiet. My thoughts are in Technicolor, but without being particularly profound. Pretty things, done up in sailor suits, jangling shiny silver bells, rolling on the green grass. None last for more than a moment. They skip away if I try to get close.

Suddenly it's 1.30. I am so tired that my eyes are rolling back in my head. I yearn for home, my own bed. I wish it would just grow up around me as I sit here, but it is miles away. I stand up for the first time in hours. Within seconds I am overwhelmed with the most startling nausea I have ever experienced. I retreat to the couch. Seconds after I sit down, the nausea subsides. I cannot go anywhere. I could not walk to bathroom, much less catch a cab across town.

Jeff and Rachel are so sorry; they should never have had me come to their house, they should have come to mine. They want me to sleep over. It'll be fun. They've got a perfect sheet that fits the couch.

Rachel makes the bed under me. Jeff offers pyjamas, but I would rather sleep in my clothes. They make sure I have water to drink and promise to wake me up in time for my art class the next day. I have been transformed into the needy infant of my fears. I am unable even to tuck the covers in around myself. I am prevented by nausea, but also by the simple desire to be still. I sink into the pillow and disappear.

Heroin is an immobiliser. The effects keep the user from functioning, but also make that immobility seem pleasant, something to be cultivated. What jerk would want to eat, dance or have sex when we can all sit quietly? The body ceases to be a source of enjoyment. The mind goes on as usual, a bit shinier and more colourful for its assumption of dominance in what used to be a mind/body dialectic. The body isn't numb, but kept so still to avoid discomfort that its needs and pleasures are forgotten. It's almost as if the mind is relishing its counterpart's reduction, taking advantage of a time free from the usual compulsions to move. Therein lies the connection between the fantastic visions of Coleridge and the sad-looking teenager on the street, or the pale redhead with nowhere to house her cat: a body close to pain, and a mind that doesn't care.

From `Tongue First', published by Virago on 14 January at pounds 9.99