Growing up in the late 60's and early 70's and living where I did meant you were fully indoctrinated into the so-called Drug Culture of the time. It was the zenith of the Tune In-Turn On-and Drop Out generation. Most of us subscribed to that philosophy in one degree or another. It was a time when experimentation ruled and I, for one, was willing to try almost anything, often simply for the sake of saying that I did. I was young and fearless - death was inconceivable. It seemed so far away. But I was reckless and foolish, too. I was living life on the razor's edge - bullet proof - indestructible.
I wasn't looking to use drugs as some did, i.e. to escape reality or just to "party", but much more for the experience it might bring. I was a big fan of Aldous Huxley's seminal work, "The Doors of Perception". In the essay, Huxley describes his experiences using mescaline, the psychedelic ingredient in the peyote cactus. He believed that using mind-altering substances like mescaline would bring him to an alternative state of reality - one that existed only deep within the recesses of our unconscious minds. Some of these materials could provide the key to that lock. He would break on through to the other side (by the way, The Doors took their name from Huxley's work). With that in mind, there seemed to be few drugs that I would not experiment with- except HEROIN (until I did. More later).
Pot, LSD, mescaline, peyote, Quaaludes, uppers, downers, and in-betweeners were all on the menu. All could be be used in the name of experimentation - all except heroin. That was the devil's drug. It could do no good, only harm. It was an evil substance that was a blight on our inner cities. Nice white kids from suburbia didn't do heroin; gang-bangers and minority kids did. It seemed to never leave the ghetto. And, as long as it stayed there, no one seemed to care.
Well, that's not the case today. Heroin addiction is now no longer restricted to the inner cities. It has seeped into virtually every bastion of white privilege - like Cambridge, Mass., the home of Harvard University (see: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/07/us/heroin-epidemic-increasingly-seeps-into-public-view.html?_r=0). I have been approached by a number of women who have lost their children at young ages to heroin overdoses. They are all wonderful women who are great mothers and also devastated by their losses. They did everything they could to save their children: interventions, arrests, repeated trips to rehab. But, to no avail. In the end, the heroin proved even stronger than their love.
But, why? How? What is it about heroin that makes it so insidious?
I'm not sure that I have the answer, especially in light of my one and only experience with the drug.
I was in my mid-twenties and fresh out of graduate school. I hadn't quite settled into a professional career and, so, was just driving a taxi to get by until I figured it all out. During my time with the cab company, I was befriended by a regular passenger. His name was Mike. He liked my "style" and regularly requested me to drive him into NYC to conduct his business. A ride into the City with Mike could make your whole day. He always left a generous tip. And, he was a most unusual man. Extraordinarily tall (about 6'7"), he came from a very wealthy Jewish, New York family. His father was the largest importer of Teamo tobacco products in the City. His mother owned the 4th largest private collection of Tiffany Lamps in the world. Mike also claimed that he was a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War, the veracity of which I can not verify. And, he was also incredibly intelligent. On our trips into town, we would have long, deep, detailed conversations on the meaning of life. One day after riding in my taxi he told me that he would need to go back into the City the next day and he wanted me to drive him. He wanted to make the trip more interesting and, so, challenged me on my lexicon. That night, he wanted me to to look up any three words from the dictionary to question him as to their meanings when I drove him the next day. He said the more obscure, the better. When I picked him up at the predetermined time the next day, I was ready. I had found three words that I had never even heard of before, much less knew the meaning of, confident that I could stump him. Well, not only did he get the words IMMEDIATELY, he chided me for bringing him ones that were so obvious!
Yes, he was remarkable. But, he was also very troubled. He had two major addictions - gambling and heroin.
Driving him to an illegal betting parlor on the lower East Side of Manhattan one day, I saw him take a brown paper bag filled with about $10,000 in cash that he had withdrawn from his father's bank account and bet the whole thing on a NY Knicks basketball game. I believe that he lost that bet. I would also take him on his frequent trips to the Alphabet City neighborhood in lower Manhattan to purchase his heroin. I was not afraid to drive him. In fact, I found the whole subculture fascinating.
I was also mystified how this brilliant, wealthy, friendly man let his life get so out of control. During our trips together, in an effort to understand, I would pepper him with question about his life and how he had gotten to that point. When I pressed him as to why someone with so much talent would waste it all by being an addict he answered, "because doing heroin is like kissing god"!
Of course, this piqued my interest in him and heroin even further. Every time that I drove him I barraged him with questions as to how and why he did what he did. Finally, one day, after one of our forays into the City, I was dropping him off at his apartment when he pressed something into my hand as a "tip". When I opened my hand to check it out, I noticed that it was a small, cellophane packet containing a small amount of a brownish-white powder. It also had a graphic of a blue locomotive stamped on it. I asked, "what the hell is this"?
"What do you think it is? Time to put your money where your mouth is", he replied.
I looked at it again as said, "you're out of your mind! I'm not shooting this shit into my body".
Mike responded, "you don't have to. You've snorted cocaine before, right? Well, you can use heroin the same way. There's enough in this packet for about 4 lines. Cut out 2. You can always do more if you want to but you can't do less once you've begun. Wait until you have a time when you don't have to be anywhere and find out for yourself what it's all about".
He left my cab, I placed the packet in my pocket, finished my shift, and drove to my apartment. It was a Friday night. I took the packet into my bedroom to open it. I found my "cocaine kit" (a small mirror, razor blade and straw) and emptied the contents onto the mirror. As Mike said, the brownish powder was enough for about 4 small "lines". I cut out 2 as he had suggested. My roommate wasn't home yet, so I had the privacy that I needed to conduct my experiment. I snorted the two and waited for my roommate to get home. He arrived about a half- hour later.
I greeted him but made no mention of what I had done. Since he was an intrepid experimenter too we had often discussed the possibility of trying heroin - at least on a temporary basis. He was familiar with Mike and had also been intrigued by what it was all about. But, I said nothing. I wanted to be the first to find out what knowledge it might offer. Perhaps, afterward we would discuss what I had experienced. Since it was a Friday he suggested that we go to the nearby grocery store to shop for something to eat before we headed out for the evening's festivities. I agreed and we walked to the corner together.
When I first snorted the heroin, I felt nothing. There was virtually no sensation except, perhaps, a little burning in my nose. That all changed shortly after we got to the supermarket. Suddenly, I started to get nauseous. At first, it was just a little uncomfortable. But, after a few minutes the nausea started to get severe - so much so that I was afraid that I would vomit in the middle of the store. I made some excuse to my roommate explaining that I had to go outside for a minute but that I would be right back. I felt like I desperately needed some fresh air or I was in danger of passing out in one of the aisles. I stepped out into the store's parking lot and began to breath deeply. I was desperately trying to get control of myself. After some time, I started feeling a bit better and returned to the store and found my roommate. He asked how I was doing and I replied "fine".
We finished our shopping and headed back to our apartment to put our groceries away and begin preparing for the night. We started loading the stuff into the kitchen cabinets while discussing our plans for the evening. Suddenly, as before but only worse this time, I started to experience light-headiness and EXTREME nausea. I fought the feeling as best I could but after a few more minutes I was getting overwhelmed with this sickness. I called over to my friend and said, hey, if you don't mind, I'm not feeling very well. Would you mind if you finished up alone so that I could lie down for a bit? He looked over at me. His jaw dropped and he replied, "holy shit - you're fucking GREEN! You'd better go lie down"! And, that's exactly what I did.
When I got to my bed, I laid down on my back, with my clothes on. And, I was acutely ill. I found that the only way I could avoid the feeling of overwhelming nausea was to lie as completely still as possible. Even turning my head slightly nearly paralyzed me with sickness. So, there I lie, fully clothed and as motionless as I could possibly make myself. And, there I stayed - ALL night. My roommate and other friends who had come by for the normal Friday night revelry came in to check on me from time to time. I responded as succinctly as I possible could, not moving my head at all and whispering, "I'm OK". Of course, that was a lie. The fact was that I was not even sure that I would make it through the night. Still, I told no one and suffered in silence.
The night finally passed and when the morning came, much to my relief, I had survived. I was actually able to lift myself off of the bed and stand. After a few minutes, I realized that the worst was over and that I was gradually returning to some type of normalcy. My roommate woke a short time later and we sat together to have coffee. Of course, he asked me if I was OK and what the hell had happened to me the night before. I came clean and told him exactly what I had done. Instead of being angry, he was quite impressed that I had been so bold. And, we both wondered what could have gone wrong. It certainly was NOT like Kissing God! We called a mutual friend who had some experience in these matters to ask. He explained to us that my experience was not unusual for first-time users. He went on to say that there are certain precautions to take, like protecting your stomach with some type of anti-nausea medication, that will protect you, at least somewhat.
My roommate asked me what I wanted to do with the rest of the heroin. I told him that he could have it if he wanted. I was DONE with THIS experiment. That night had told me everything that I needed to know about heroin. My body had punished me for my insolence. How dare I allow this poison into the temple that is the human body. The message was VERY loud and clear - this shit is DEATH. If that's the price for Kissing God, then I'm not interested.
We flushed what was left down the toilet.
I know that heroin has infiltrated our society in a way that it has never done before. It is accessible and it is cheap. But, take it from me, it is also DEADLY. I was lucky to have survived a foolish experiment. So, young people, LISTEN to your parents and those who love you enough to tell you the truth - find another way to KISS GOD - his lips cannot be found at the point of a syringe.
Epilogue: My friend, Mike, who had given me the heroin in the first place, made me watch him shoot it into his veins one day. And, he did it on purpose - whatever "romantic" notion that I may have once had about experimenting with that poison was completely dashed by the vision of that filthy needle sticking in his arm. I have not seen or spoken to him in over 20 years. But, I'm sure that he, too, was taken by the needle.
I miss my son. Mornings are so hard. I cry here at my kitchen table while the world still sleeps just about every morning before work. I will never understand why after years of prayer and intervention after intervention we still lost this battle. After over 3 years clean we had begun to breath again finally. We had begun to think he had made it. This disease is cunning, baffling and powerful. It robbed us of everything. It is the devil's drug no doubt. I carry you with me Zach Ziehm. All day every day. I will love you forever.
Tami George, who lost her son to a heroin overdose.