The email subject was familiar: “Are you still doing heroin?” The body of the email was short:
That’s it, nothing more. I responded that I’m not and thanked them for emailing me. I assume this person wants to know if I’m still using because maybe that gives them hope to stop. This email is like so many I’ve received over the past 15 years in response to an article I wrote called “I Miss You, Heroin.” The article was published on November 4, 2004. The email attached to the byline was “howludicrous [at] yahoo.com,” was a fake email I made up for”Laura Lang.” I used a pseudonym because I was afraid to use my real name at the time.
I was 22 years old when I wrote it and I hadn’t used in almost two years. I was clean, but I was still an addict. I shot up for a few years. Four maybe? Five? It doesn’t really matter. I became an addict on purpose.Let me explain: I made a new friend, and we quickly became the best of friends. He was a heroin addict. As I watched my friend “throwing his life away”, I felt helpless. I thought I could show him how bad it was. I intended to get addicted because I thought if he saw my downward spiral it would scare him straight. He loved me, I knew he wouldn’t want to see me break. Also, I was sure I could quit. Absolutely 100% positive I could quit.
But then I liked it and ended up using until I didn’t like myself anymore.
So the article I wrote was about how it feels to be a “functional addict,”about how I went to work every day to maintain my habit. I wrote about how I applied makeup to my track marks and wore long sleeves in the summer. I explained how I felt when I ran red lights on the way to my dealer’s house. I wrote about the lifestyle. I wasn’t worried about fitting in or being liked. I wasn’t worried about success or prestige. I was only worried about having enough money for my next shot. I didn’t try to glorify it, I just wrote the truth as I knew it. That article, that truth, struck a chord with some people on the internet.
I’ve gotten thousands of emails about that article. A lot of people wanted to know if I used again. They wanted to know if I was still a “functional” addict and would ask about me:
“Are you well? Did you go back to heroin? Were you able to control your addiction after going back?”
Some would identify with me:
“Your story reminds me of ME. just reading it makes me feel like there’s still hope for a better life without using junk…“
“Your article describes exactly how I feel, how are you doing?”
“Laura , I can’t tell you how good it was to read your blog or whatever on heroin. I was a functional addict for some years and you nailed it right on the head. I can’t tell you, but probably don’t have too, how alone I felt since I quit.”
I tried to email them all back over the years. As the years wore on, the emails became fewer and farther between. So far in 2019, I’ve received two. The subject line of the second was “Kindred Spirits: An Application,” and the person told me a bit about their life. At the end, s/he asked if I might be a friend, an acquaintance or a unique sponsor of some sort. I answered in an encouraging, but non-committal kind of way.
I tried to tell the addicts who wrote to me a truth that would help them do what they wanted. I tried to tell them that all they needed was themselves. I tried to tell them that addiction can be a choice. You can choose to stand up and battle through this life. You can also choose to do it without drugs.
I don’t know if that was the right thing to say.
The emails that hit me the hardest were the ones asking for help:
“My best friend from high school got into heroin a couple years ago, she claims she quit. But I know that’s not true. I still see her from time to time, but only for 20 mins or so. I feel like I should confront her but I don’t want to lose her again. I don’t want to tell her how to live her life but I don’t want to go to her funeral. Any advice?”
Friends or family members of addicts needed help, too. They were afraid and frustrated. They felt helpless and used. I tried to help them. I tried to give them the perspective of addiction from the addict. I tried to help them recognize that they didn’t have any control and that they would have to paint their own boundaries. It’s not an obligation that I felt to try and help these people, it’s just part of who I want to be. If someone is brave enough to reach out and ask for help, I want to be the kind of person who is responsive, and so I try.
My real name is Laura Hilliger. I don’t know why I chose “Laura Lang,” for my pseudonym. I thought “Lang” seemed common, safe. It didn’t mean anything to me then, but the pseudonym means something to me now. Because Laura Lang is a version of me who wasn’t afraid to be open about her addiction while Laura Hilliger was terrified. I was afraid that if my story got out, it would ruin my life–that no one would hire me. I was afraid that at my reputation would be destroyed before I’d really started my career. I was afraid of the stigma of drug use, even as I was writing about how I don’t fit the stigma. Once the Internet knows something, it stays known.
I’m not so afraid anymore. Maybe it’s just age that has settled the fear. Maybe it’s all my diagnoses and the zeitgeist of the discussions around mental health. My entire life people have been telling me that I’m abnormal, but I’m trying to change my own narrative. Who defines normalcy anyway? It’s all normal, you know. Whatever you’re experiencing – it’s normal. You are not alone. I am a normal person. I wake up in the morning and go to sleep at night.
Oh, and the shame. The idea that one cannot take care of oneself is shame-inducing. I read shame in those emails. Society tells drug addicts that we have no control, that we’re pariahs, that we’re dirty somehow, that we’re sad, unworthy, and that we need professional help.
I still feel shame, guilt, and fear, but I no longer feel ashamed of my heroin addiction. And neither should you. I am brilliant and funny and competent and hardworking. I pay my taxes and make a great guacamole and I support a better world and take care of people. I understand things like grief and loss and tragedy. Things I shouldn’t have to understand. These understandings allow me to be empathetic. I am more than functional–I am good.
It’s time to own our narratives–drug addiction doesn’t mean you are a bad person. Besides, everyone is addicted to something. They’re addicted to TV or the internet, video games, stamp collecting, who knows what. Addiction isn’t shameful, it’s systemic. We can choose to focus our addictive personalities elsewhere. We can become addicted to helping others.
Now, I work in a space between technology, psychology, community and justice. I work in open source and activism – places where authenticity and kindness are key to being successful. It’s not always easy, but there’s a lot to pay attention to out here. I feel like a better person when I spend my time trying to help others. I work to spread the culture of openness and build communities and technology that connect people and help them in some way. I enjoy working on social or environmental issues, trying to make the world a better place for all of us.
We can all have a positive impact. All it takes is humanity and empathy and honesty.
And honestly? Sometimes I am very tired. Sometimes I still miss heroin and how easy it made shutting down from the world. But mostly I just wake up in the morning and make one decision after another, all day long.