Crackhead, junkie, burn out, bag bitch, dope fiend, druggie, all terms designated for what psychologists and medical doctors deem a drug addict. Appearing in dilapidated houses, street corners and prison cells across movie and television screens, the “junkie” is the utmost social pariah, someone who willingly destroys their life and ruins those of everyone around them.
Living with one opened my eyes and shattered that perception. For a year, I lived in an apartment with a heroin addict, watched him slowly deteriorate in every human aspect and tried to hide this secret from my parents. I gave embarrassed looks to my guests each time they were greeted with the sight of him and his girlfriend nodding out on the couch. Standing by as a neutral observer, I was afraid to get involved out of fear that it would cause a confrontation. I eventually became apathetic to the situation as his addiction progressed.
The problem with these stereotypes and images is that they are often incomplete. The slow mental and physical deterioration that occurs makes it almost impossible for an observer to intervene directly. There were many times where he claimed he wanted to “get clean” before leaving later that day to score another gram of heroin, a few grams of over the counter prescription drugs and then later some meth.
I can say my high school health class and anti-drug propaganda pushed at me by Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) and other programs failed miserably. Instead of accurately describing what drugs actually do, they were always more focused on portraying stereotypes of drug users and addicts. A college undergraduate struggling with depression and anxiety attacks is rarely depicted in anti-drug videos in favor of smug guys with poorly trimmed facial hair and a black beanie, or a high schooler smoking a joint.
My rationale for ignoring it all was that it wasn’t directly hurting me initially. After all it was his well-being, his health, his mind. Then, money I had stored in a box was broken into and stolen. Later, he began asking for an advance on a utility bill every two weeks, which would almost always amount to $80 — enough to purchase two grams of heroin — before leaving for a couple of hours and returning with a brown bag.
Maybe I was enabling him the times I forwarded him the cash for utility bills. I really don’t know. There were many things I could’ve done to intervene; contact his mother, the police, anyone. I was more preoccupied with staying occupied. Whether it was taking up extra shifts at work, or taking extra news stories, any excuse to leave the apartment was welcome.
On the rare occasions I was there, I tried to sleep through the shouting matches between the couple accusing each other of stealing money or drugs around the house. I would walk home to find a few more of their drug addict “friends” passing the foil to get a hit. To this day, I still have a hard time smelling the scent of vinegar reminiscent of the smoke clouds that invaded my apartment.
It eventually built up to the point where I needed to move out, as the shouting matches and their condition was creating a hostile atmosphere. Every time I left my room, tensions would increase between us as he either lounged around the apartment or became very anxious and paranoid to receive his next fix.
I saw him one last time after I moved out, right before his mother intervened and sent him off to a rehab center in Florida. At that point, I just remember the chaotic atmosphere as his soon to be ex-girlfriend reached into the wallet of one of their “guests” and stole $150 in front of us. That guest, who was a convicted car thief, ended up stealing my old roommates car — which my roommate let him borrow — before abandoning it near Artesia.
The experience left me mentally exhausted. Every moment I had in that hellhole made me extremely anxious, yet the pathetic look on his face during his withdrawals made me pity him. The hell he had been living in was visibly worse. While I never understood what it was, something led him to cope with his problems by using heroin as a quick fix.
Watching someone’s descent to rock bottom was disturbing, yet I don’t hold guilt for letting it happen. My general ignorance of him led to some comfort regarding my understanding of his addiction. Maybe one day I’ll understand, but until then, I take comfort knowing it eventually led to him receiving the treatment he needed.
While he didn’t finish his degree, life is looking up for him. He has a steady job now and a new girlfriend to compliment his sobriety. Maybe one day I can get to know him again, like I once did, before his addiction hijacked my memory of him.