IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Went Through the Hell of Heroin Withdrawal and Came Out the Other Side

You know when you're underwater, and you need to come up for a breath? That's heroin withdrawal, only not exactly, because it's worse.
Publish date:
October 30, 2013
heroin, recovery, IHTM, drug addiction

I lay on the floor in the exam room at the doctor's office, pressing my face into the linoleum to absorb the coolness. It didn't work –- how could it? I had no idea whether I was hot or cold.

I heard my boyfriend Lawrence talking to the doctor's assistant in the hallway. "Tell me straight up. If this is a scam, just tell me now, so we can go to plan B."

Plan B was one more score of heroin, then a trip to get Lawrence's gun. One fix each to get well, then one bullet in each of our heads.

How I came to be writhing on the floor of a doctor's office in heroin withdrawal is a story too long to tell here, but here's a CliffNotes version:

In 2003, I broke my knee in a bad skiing accident. I had to have bone graft surgery, and after a few months, I became addicted to painkillers. This was a hell of a shock, as I was the one holdout in my family who didn't use drugs or drink. I was a successful designer, with a good marriage, plenty of money and a life that looked pretty damn sparkly from the outside. I was proud of my status as a "respected community member," with all the privileges that entails.

But addiction doesn't care who you are, what you have, or what you've accomplished. In under a year, I lost my marriage, my home, my baby, my dog, friends, honesty, and every scrap of my self-respect. I went to two rehabs. Did a ton of work. Got better. Then a dear friend OD'd while on the phone with me. I was devastated, and in early recovery, I didn't have experience yet with maintaining sobriety in the midst of severe loss.

My heroin habit started as one of those incredibly bone-headed ideas folks get when they have some clean time and what seems like a perfect "excuse" to relapse: "Let's do it once, just to prove that we're strong enough to stop. Anyway, I've never done it, and I'm curious."

Four months later, most of my share of the house-sale money had gone to a pair of Honduran dealers whose eyes lit up like Christmas morning when they saw Lawrence and I walking down the alley. Because I had money, we quickly climbed to using 4 to 5 grams of heroin a day each. I knew I would probably die; I nearly did a few times. At that point, I didn't much care; I had become the thing I had disdained for most of my life: a drug addict. I'd lost myself, and I couldn't see any way out.

Well… maybe the Internet could help. In a last-ditch effort, I researched opiate dependency treatment options I knew about Methadone, of course -- what self-respecting child of Bohemian/Hippies who grew up reading William S. Burroughs does not -– but everything I read told me to stay away. It was just as addictive as heroin; it got you high; and kicking Methadone was said to be just as hard as heroin withdrawal. About the only thing it had going for it was that it was legal.

Then I saw that a doctor in Berkeley was treating opiate addicts with a new drug called Suboxone. Never heard of it. I called, and his assistant Kevin walked us through how it works: "You have to be in withdrawal before we can induce you, and we recommend, with your habit, a 72-hour kick. Then we'll have you come in here first thing the morning after, because you're going to be pretty unhappy at that point. And we'll get you induced. Within a few hours, I promise, you will feel much better. Not high -- better than high. You'll feel NORMAL."

Suboxone had just been FDA-approved in 2002, and it was still relatively unknown. It was heralded as a great improvement over Methadone. For one thing, Suboxone has very little potential for abuse, so it can be prescribed and taken home, as opposed to having to go to a clinic every day for a Methadone dose.

Methadone clinics, by the way, are magnets for drug dealers; they wait outside to sell dope to the relapse-prone.

With Methadone, you can still use opiates. Suboxone, however, contains buprenorphine, which binds tenaciously to the opiate receptors in the brain, kicking off any other opiate molecules that might come waltzing by. Pure buprenorphine has some potential for IV abuse, so Suboxone also contains Naloxone -– the same drug in OD kits –- to counter that possibility.

It sounded promising. I made appointments for Lawrence and I. We got a room at a motel near the doctor's office, laid in our Kicking Kit supplies (RockStar, some Jolly Ranchers, cigarettes, and Cup O' Noodle, should we feel that long-forgotten urge to eat).

The 72 hours that followed seared one fact into my brain: Heroin has amazing PR. It is an absolute bait-and-switch of a drug. For a few weeks, maybe, you feel better than you've ever felt in your life, but after that it stops feeling good at all. You now have to use it to avoid the unbelievably horrific withdrawal symptoms.

Writers and directors have tried to convey the pangs of full opiate withdrawal –- remember Ewan MacGregor in "Trainspotting"? I would gladly have sawn off a limb to lay in bed screaming while a baby doll crawled across the ceiling. The closest I've ever come to describing it to a friend is: You know when you're underwater, and you need to come up for a breath? And it's taking too long to get to the surface? That feeling, of having no oxygen left, your whole body feeling like fire, salty and aching with the desperate need to breathe? That's it, only not exactly, because it's worse.

At one point, I went into the bathroom, and found Lawrence -- all six feet, two inches of him, tattooed and scarred up and tough as hell, having lived through one of the most astonishingly hard lives I'd ever heard of, curled up in the bottom of a tiny, filthy shower stall like a little escargot, sobbing and shivering in desolate agony.

Here comes history's greatest understatement: We were right on time for our induction appointment. We could barely make it into the building. Our legs kept spasming, our backs twisting. We were drooling profusely and shaking violently. We were haggard and green. Kevin, a large Jamaican man with a rare gift for being soothing to junkies, helped us into separate exam rooms, where we both ended up writhing on the floor ("That happens a lot," said Kevin in his sweet way).

He started us each with a little orange pill. We were to hold it under our tongues until it dissolved. The pills tasted like rotten tangerines grown in the ass of Satan. They took a long time to dissolve. And nothing happened.

20 minutes later, another pill. 20 minutes after that, another. Now we were just as miserable as before, but our mouths tasted like citrus-flavored regret. Another round of pills, another 20 minutes of thrashing and moaning and drooling and whimpering. Then I heard Lawrence in the hallway, asking Kevin to tell us if this was a scam. Back to the Hell on the Floor.

I had just drawn in another ragged breath for another moan of agony, when it all ... suddenly ... STOPPED. What?! I sat up.

My body was still and calm. The feeling of bugs crawling in and out of my skin vanished. My stomach settled and my head stopped whirling. The worst thing -- the indescribable feeling of whole-body horror –- was simply gone. I noticed for the first time that it was a sunny day. The sunlight felt amazing on my face. Tears came to my eyes, but I laughed.

"Lawrence! It's WORKING!" I called.

"I know! Me too!" he yelled back.

Kevin came running down the hallway, a huge grin on his face. "See? I told you it wasn't a scam! This is the best part of my job. Oh, just let me just look at you guys!" Lawrence and I ran into the hallway and hugged him, laughing and crying.

We walked out of the doctor's feeling like we'd been given the keys to a paradise, but the paradise was simply ordinary, beautiful LIFE. We felt completely fine. Not high at all, and that was great.

"Are you hungry?" asked Lawrence, and we went to a café for breakfast. For four months, we had not really eaten. The waitress set down in front of us a plate piled with perfect waffles covered with fresh fruit. Gold and jewels. Life.

Lawrence and I are eight years clean now, and doing great. It's not an exaggeration to say that Suboxone saved our lives. If you or a loved one has a problem with opiate addiction, you can find doctor online who can tell you more about Suboxone therapy.

If you're in the San Francisco Bay Area, I highly recommend Care Practice, an innovative medical clinic founded by our doctor and friend, Aaron Blackledge. Care Practice offers 24/7 Urgent and Primary Care, house calls, and Suboxone induction and maintenance.

As with any medication, Suboxone has its detractors, and there is a lot of contradictory information floating around about it. I hope, by telling my somewhat embarrassing story here, that I can help an xoJane reader who might be struggling with opiate addiction. If it weren't for Suboxone, I would not be here today to write this.

Disclaimer zone: This is a personal story written by a non-medical professional. Consult your physician if you need help with opiate addiction.