Paul, a heroin addict in Ormond Beach, FL

My afternoon with a heroin addict

Paul, 22, heroin addict
Paul, 22, heroin addict

For reasons far too complicated to explain, I spent part of my afternoon yesterday standing on a sun-beaten, splintered ocean walkway with Paul, a 22-year old heroin addict. The crook of his elbow was an angry pulsing red, still reacting from where he had shot up only moments before. He would nod off in mid-conversation, pitching forward until an instinctual state of self-preservation woke him up before he lost his balance completely.

Paul tried to maintain a conversation during his stupor, and I kept up with him to the best of my ability. We talked about stand-up comedy and his dream to be a tattoo artist. He talked about music and his best friend, who was stabbed the night before. Half of his sentences trailed off into the ether as his head dropped, eyes closed, mouth agape.

We shook hands upon parting company, and it took every ounce of willpower to avoid wiping my hand on my clothes. I knew I could wait until I was out of sight before using hand sanitizer and finding somewhere to wash away that dirty, sick feeling. Even after scrubbing my hands with soap and scalding water, I couldn’t shake that need for a shower, even though my rational side knew that there wasn’t anything to wash away.

On the drive home, I made light of the situation. “You know, if you play connect the dots with the track marks, it makes a unicorn.” “Boy, some people take heroin chic way too seriously.” My friend said that she never wanted to go back there and that she would make excuses and deal with the fact the he would think she was an asshole for the rest of her life. I looked at her and said, “No, just for the rest of his.”

Paul is on his way out of this world. He hasn’t hit rock bottom yet, but it’s coming up fast. And while I looked at him and thought “This is his fault. He deserves whatever happens because he’s the one who injects that shit into his body,” I felt shame. Not at my thoughts, because the responsibility is indeed his, but shame at the fact that for every paragon of virtue and human achievement, there is someone like Paul. Our society advances in leaps and bounds, but we still leave so many people behind. Every time someone like Paul loses his fight with addiction, we all fail as human beings.

85 thoughts on “My afternoon with a heroin addict”

  1. Wow. I wish I help every one of those precious souls. Coincidentally, I watched “Intervention” last night and it was about a young man addicted to heroin…addiction is a heart-wrenching disease. “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

  2. Wasn’t it Gandhi that said something like “a society should be measured by how we treat its weakest members…”? Truth hurts and we fail our fellow humans (especially people like Paul) every day. Yes, we are so very often heroes to others in need – and that is inspiring and restores my faith in humanity – but sadly, we tend to help those who are “easier” to help I think. Then again… how do you go about helping someone so lost?

    1. @Karen, “but sadly, we tend to help those who are “easier” to help I think. Then again… how do you go about helping someone so lost?” Well said. I volunteer with the homeless, but in a way that is easy for me. I want to help, but I don’t want to get up close, and that makes me feel like a dog.

    1. @Megan, unfortunately most teenagers these days would look at someone like that and tell themselves, “oh, I’ll never get that bad”. They think they’re invulnerable, and don’t understand how insidious heavy-duty addiction is, how it steals your soul a little bit at a time until there is nothing left and you don’t care anymore. They don’t understand how certain decisions made now can have life-altering consequences in the future.

  3. “For reasons far too complicated to explain, I spent part of my afternoon yesterday standing on a sun-beaten, splintered ocean walkway with Paul, a 22-year old heroin addict.” —were the reasons really too complicated, or just illegal? I have often wondered, as I am sure others have as well, what you actually do for a living; question answered.

  4. You could just say “I was getting a three-dollar Scottish hand job from a junky on a secluded boardwalk”. C’mon, I think we’ve all been there, right?. There’s no shame in admitting it.

    Metallica rules, although …And Justice For All was the beginning of their foray into mediocrity.

  5. I feel bad for your friend. Paul is someone to her, someone who wasn’t always this version of himself.

    It’s hard walking away, knowing you can’t save them. Making peace with the reality of choices made from a place of gripping addictions. Accepting that this person you love is not just losing the battle, they aren’t even capable of fighting it anymore.

    I’m glad you were there, for your friend.

  6. I always wonder what thoughts an addict must have the first time they venture to try something like heroin or crystal meth. They either have to be blissfully ignorant of the effects beyond the initial rush, or in incredible personal pain about something in their lives that they just want to make it go away at all costs.

    I don’t understand, but my heart goes out to all of them. I hope Paul makes it through the other side of this, even though I would guess that the chances of that aren’t great.

    1. @B.E. Earl, speaking only for myself, I thought that because I was aware of the dangers, I could stop before it got bad. Problem was, it got bad a lot sooner than I realized it was getting bad. Nobody wakes up in the morning and thinks, “Gee, I think I’ll become an alcoholic/addict today.” You never realize it until it’s too late. Then you think, I should quit, but that’s going to be really hard, so maybe I’ll try tomorrow. But tomorrow never comes.

      If you’re lucky like me, something in the back of your head tells you that life will be better without it than with it, and some other part of you believes that enough to make it through the worst of it. And it is belief. Your life is so far down the dumper that you have no idea how you’ll get back to something worth dealing with minus the booze/drugs. but you keep on keeping on, and just like you didn’t realize until after the fact that things had gotten so bad, one day you realize after the fact that things have gotten pretty good.

  7. Look at it this way… unlike some people in your state, you don’t wish for his death and I don’t see anyone commenting here doing so either. We have to take our small victories as rational humans where we can.

  8. “Every time someone like Paul loses his fight with addiction, we all fail as human beings.”

    Very true. We can’t always save others; especially those who don’t want to be saved. And it’s not always our place to try and save them. But we can’t cast them aside. Had my brother been cast aside when he was ‘hopeless’ he wouldn’t be five and a half years sober today.

  9. So fricking sad. I know a few heroin addicts, who, even when they are attempting to quit, are just as fucked up on the state sponsored methadone (and every one of them doing other drugs along with the methadone, too). Heroin is the WORST. Well, except for maybe crack.

  10. I think it’s good that you spent time with him, and that you’re trying to force yourself to get a little closer to the people you’re helping. And yeah, while the responsibility is his, I don’t think most people try anything — smoking, drinking, drugs — believing even a little bit that they could become addicted and it could take their life. But it does. The heroin addict isn’t really different than a guy dying of lung cancer who smoked for years, someone holding on for dear life while detoxing from alcohol or a woman attempting to stop snorting coke before it kills her. Sometimes one time saying, “I’m curious — I’ll try this” is the beginning of the end. I say this thinking of the many alcoholics in my family, and of one of our closest family friends — an incredibly successful, vibrant man 50% of the time and a closet heroin addict the other 50%.

    1. @sandra, it’s not a side of society that I want to revisit frequently, but it was good to see it in the first place. I know that most people don’t try something with the idea that they’ll become addicted. That’s the tricky thing about addiction.

  11. That was a rough one for me to read. I always try very hard not to subject myself to the horrors that others face daily, not because I am cold-hearted or long to be ignorant, but because it physically hurts me to see the pain of others who I cannot help. I thank you for sharing this story and, more importantly, I thank you for talking to that man. Though he was nodding off and probably won’t remember you tomorrow, just speaking with him probably filled some section of him that was empty.

    I read your blog often and am constantly amazed at your depth and ability. Your humor makes my day, but your humanity makes my existence. Thank you for helping us all succeed as human beings.

  12. Thank you for writing about this. I watched my aunt and uncle give in to heroin for years, and everything you wrote was spot on. The only difference between them and poor Paul is that they finally cleaned up their act, although my aunt now suffers from numerous health problems.

    I wish I could say that it is super easy to help a drug addict, but you can’t. They have to want the help, which is why my aunt and uncle let their lives revolve around it for almost 15 years. I can only hope that Paul hits rock bottom in such a way that he lives, but gets the help he needs.

    I could type pages and pages about this issue and about the people who battle their addictions, but I won’t. It hurts.

  13. Truth: heroin scares the shit out of me.

    My best friend from high school became an addict and seeing how powerless she was against it made me rethink what I’d previously believed about addiction. Heroin is, I think, the worst of the worst. I can feel nothing but pity for those who fall under it’s spell.

  14. “Every time someone like Paul loses his fight with addiction, we all fail as human beings.”

    Amen to that. My youngest stepson was a meth addict. His best friend’s MOM of all fucking people gave him his first taste when he was about 15 or 16 and he sank fast and hard. My husband and I battled hard for years to help him and he finally reached a point when he was about 20 where he was ready for the help we so desperately wanted to give him.

    He’s fared much better than Paul. At 24 he’s clean and healthy and getting on with his life. It breaks my heart that people like Paul won’t be so lucky.

  15. I always wonder what happens to bring a person to this kind of hell. It’s heartbreaking. This young man is someone’s son and his parents will know the pain of burying a child. I can’t fathom that sort of loss.

  16. When I was a kid, my dad used to always, always give the homeless people we saw in town money or food. I never asked why, it didn’t occur to me that this was something that other people DIDN’T do. Years later, when I asked him why he did that, he said that the only thing keeping him from becoming one of those people (he was an alcoholic) was a supportive family and a successful stint in rehab. I’ve carried that with me always.

    I agree, I don’t think it’s my job to help addicts, but as the daughter of a recovering alcoholic and a human being, I do think it’s my duty to acknowledge their existence. Sometimes that’s all they have.

  17. Paul was your friend’s friend, right? Not her actual friend? The friend was the one that got fake-stabbed?

    It’s funny (to me) that nobody has mentioned the fact that you took and posted a crystal clear photo Paul. Everybody seems to think it’s OK to post this random guy’s photo attached to the story about him. Maybe it’s just me. I’m not saying you’re wrong legally, because we know I don’t know shit. It’s just amusing since there’s no way he could have actually given consent, considering his fucked-up-ness.

      1. @Avitable, I get just taking random photos of people when you’re out. Like when you’ve posted photos of couples sitting next to each other in a booth. It’s a photo of random people. Whatever.

        But in this case, do you think your view has anything to do with your use of every social media tool out there? You publish all sorts of details of your life. I think most of your readers do. I understand (but disagree) with celebrities being open to this kind of thing, but just some random crackhead?

        I know I’ll probably get lashed for this, but is it different than talking to an emotional woman after she has an abortion and then posting a real name and candid photo of her to go along with it?

        I’m really not trying to start anything, I’m just curious on the views here as it seems I’m the only person that doesn’t think it’s OK.

          1. @Avitable, OK on you feeling comfortable about it.

            Don’t try to lawyer me on the real name statement though. There was a picture, a story, the name Paul, and his age. Without saying you’re changing any info, 100% of the people reading rightfully believe his name is Paul. Nobody would assume that was a fake name.

    1. @Clown, If it were me, I’d get a release before posting anyone’s likeness on the Internet for a piece like this. Actually I should do it for any photo of a person but I’m lazy. Thanks for the reminder.

  18. That picture is absolutely heartbreaking as is his story. Much like other’s have said I don’t know what the answer is to this horrible epidemic. Yet I hope there is one. For him and all the others affected by addiction.

  19. That’s the thing about addiction. The addict him/herself has to make the decision to get clean. For some, it comes before they hit rock bottom. For others, they hit the bottom and begin to dig.

    I’m the daughter of an addict. Albeit the “drug of choice” is alcohol; it’s still killing my dad. His body is failing… because of the 30+ years of alcohol abuse. He’s had sober years, the last stretch was 11 years. YEARS! And then… “I’ll just have one beer.” It undoes it all.

    The hardest thing in the world is to watch someone destroy themselves and KNOW that there is nothing you can say or do to MAKE them want to get help for their addiction.

    I’m so sorry your friend has to watch Paul suffer.

  20. I’ve been close to an addict before, and I’ll tell you one thing: not one of those people wants to be on the path they are on. Not one. It’s complete misery. But before addiction touched my life so closely, I too thought the thoughts you did today. It’s easy to blame the addict.
    What prompted you to speak to Paul? I know, reasons too complicated to explain. But I’m curious.
    p.s. I love the imagery you conjured up – your writing rocks ‘n’ stuff.

  21. Heroin wasn’t my game, but the white powder that was could have very well killed me if I hadn’t decided one day “Hey, I don’t want to do this anymore.” It sounds so easy, yeah, but it just isn’t that easy. Anyone who has ever had an addiction knows that horrible feeling of not feeling “normal” without it, feeling oh so much better with it, then the guilt and horrible feeling once the good feeling starts to wear off.
    I can’t and won’t judge anyone else because I’ve been there.

  22. My sister is a drug addict. Meth was her choice poison.

    It started out with OTC diet pills…before they took that speed shit out of them. It got to where she was going through a bottle of them a day. Fast forward ten years and she was addicted to meth. When the depth of her addictions could no longer be ignored and we forced it all out into the light, she still wasn’t at rock bottom. In kicking her addiction to meth, she picked up a nasty vodka and pain killers habit.

    Fast forward another ten years and she’s currently clean….but has hit, what the rest of us would describe as rock bottom a hundred times. Because rock bottom to an addict is not the same as rock bottom to the rest of us. Her marriage fell apart. She had to give up custody of her four beautiful daughters. She has stolen, lied and cheated every single member of our family – as well as strangers.

    But every time she “falls back down” we are there to help her pick up all of those pieces. Sometimes we all just want to give up….but how do you leave her alone? Weak and defenseless?

    So we pay court fees, attorneys fees, bail her out of jail and start over. We hide medications, put our wallets in a safe place and help her pick herself up off the ground. We help her find yet another job, support her through the whole mess and hope and pray for the best. All the while, fearful of the day that she is weak and unable to say no to the incredible pull of her addictions.

    My sister has been to hell and back….and dragged a whole hell of a lot of people with her. There have been times that I have hated her, raged at her and wished she’d drop of the earth.

    But I love her.

    She is the strongest person I know.

    1. @Sheila, That was an amazing protrayal of addiction from the people closest to the addict. Your family must be very strong as well, with the way they help prop her back up until she can find her own legs.
      I hope your sister finds peace.

  23. I’m ashamed to say that seeing Paul’s picture up there made the whole situation more real… like a kick in the guts. It’s almost too easy to blame these addicts for putting themselves in such situations. While I believe that each person is responsible for his/her own life (making good/bad decisions, how they react to certain circumstances), the truth is it’s not always as black and white as that.

    While the final decision of how they want to live their lives is up to themselves, I agree that others who are in a better place, those who are smart and fortunate enough to have made the right choices, or perhaps those who have enjoyed a better education and therefore have more knowledge, should try their best to help those who are not as lucky, smart, or even responsible. There should still be some sense of solidarity, that as a community we should still try our best to reach out to them. Maybe they will change, maybe they won’t. But at least as a society, we should try.

  24. I refuse to accept responsibility for a stranger’s choices in life. Every thing we do is a choice. Sure, some of us are raised with a much more spectacular life than others, but you can take two people from two very polar opposite life experiences and they will still choose to kill themselves with drugs.

    I accept responsibility for not helping someone who asks me for help.

  25. The subject of addiction hits very close to home for me, after losing my dad this summer to the long-term effects of alcohol and smoking. There are a lot of feelings there that I’m still not comfortable talking about, but one of them is guilt that I, too, chose to think of it as his problem, his choice. I walked away after an incident that pissed me off so badly I thought I could never forgive him, and now there’s no going back to fix it. That was a hard lesson.

    1. @Lisa, It was his choice, if it wasn’t his choice then whos was it? Yours? I think not.

      I watched my grandad die the same death, his feet had to be amputated because of gangreen, he also had lung cancer when he died. It was all his own fault. He thought he was the big man for years proping up the bar and thought he was cool, he wanted to be that way, well, he paid the price for “being cool”.

  26. I am not a religious person. If I were to say what I think religion should or could be though, it would be what you said. Maybe not exactly what you said, but that you said it and how you said it. The honesty of acknowledging your impulse to say, “It’s his fault” (because lots of it probably is – in a way) but then recognizing the need to bear witness to what it means for him to be the way he is.

    Now don’t go getting all cocky and shit because it sounds like I just deified you.

  27. I just read this and said aloud to myself: “Oh. My. God.”

    Fucking hell, Adam. Speechless at your insight. Thank you for taking a prod at the stigma.

    That used to be me. I’m disgusted now too .. but man I still miss it.

  28. Every time someone like Paul loses his fight with addiction, we all fail as human beings.

    Err, no we don’t. This is his problem, not everybody elses, What do we fail at exactly? He has to help himself and nobody else can do that for him. If you dragged him to rehab, as soon as he got out, he would start shooting up again becuase he has got to want it for himself. Nobody is going to make him better except himself.

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