This Is What Heroin Withdrawal Feels Like
Like something out of an IRA film, they picked me up at a petrol station on the outskirts of Dublin and drove me to the detox facility about twenty kilometres away. They hid the location for security reasons.
As I sat in the front seat of a beat-up minivan, I reflected on my predicament. I was entering the unknown, in more ways than one, but having just experienced the most painful month of my life, not to mention fifteen years of chronic heroin addiction, I felt like I could handle anything.
The detox centre was a little farm in the countryside. The long tree-lined driveway led up to an old house which sat in the middle of eight acres of land — four football pitches to you and me. Huge blackberry bushes lined the entire perimeter, and a tranquil little stream cut across the far right corner. Under different circumstances, it might have been a lovely little retreat, but it didn’t feel that way. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but there was something about the place, something haunting, that seemed to hang in the air.
I was introduced to seven other addicts on my arrival, and over the next few weeks, we’d cook, clean, talk, cry, and look after the farm together. We grew our own vegetables and went for walks around the grounds. There was also pigs, cats, donkeys and chickens on the farm.
Unlike the life of an addict, detox was highly structured. It was far from what I was used to, but I was happy to have some order back in my life. I also didn’t have to worry about where my next fix was coming from, and not having access to a phone felt so freeing.
Detoxing off methadone was a weaning process, so, anxiety aside, the early days weren’t that bad. After three weeks, I was down to a dribble of methadone — 10ml. This was tiny compared to my usual 60–100ml dose, but I felt okay, which shocked me. I became convinced that withdrawal had given me a pass; biology be damned. The ‘special addict’ — the one who thought he couldn’t have a seizure — reared his ugly head again.
This is a common thread in many addicts. Some people without addiction issues might think that they’re special; some might feel worthless, like sad little worms; most fall somewhere in the middle. Addicts, on the other hand, are very different. We think we’re special little worms, and that’s exactly what I thought I was. But I was wrong; I didn’t get a pass. A few days later, ‘the sickness’ hit hard, and every bit of ‘specialness’ was kicked right out of me.
It is difficult to describe what opiate withdrawal feels like. Many people compare it to flu, which is close, but with several key omissions. It’s a roller-coaster of emotions, feelings and bodily sensations, many of which have not been felt for a long time. My gums were throbbing, my feet were on fire and my digestive system was a mess. I was also terrified of the strangest things, like the wardrobe. A broken panel at the back reminded me of something from my past, something haunting. There were times when I wore the same clothes for days because I was afraid to look in the wardrobe.
I would also well up at the silliest little thing. They allowed us to watch TV for a few hours each evening, and we’d all sit there, bawling our eyes out watching programmes like The X Factor. They also let us have a fifteen-minute phone call to our family each week. On one occasion, the nurse was talking loudly during my call and I got so angry that I ended up in tears. I struggle to cry at the worst of times, so it was very confusing.
The most intense physical symptom was the fever. The sharp shivering sensations cut to the centre of my bones. I vividly remember one night lying in bed, trembling for hours, as the loneliness of the morning seemed to taunt me. I put on as many clothes as I could, including my jeans, jacket and a thick grey bathrobe. I even put on my shoes. I got back under the covers, but it was no use, I was freezing. I soon realised that time would be my only salvation. As I lay there shaking, cold sweat streaming off my body, it finally dawned on me why the mattress smelled so vile. I wasn’t the first one sweating in the bed.
As the last of the methadone left my system, my senses began turning back on. This was great, except for one thing: my sense of smell. As the days passed, the stink of the mattress got worse. It was one of those plastic sheet mattresses so I decided to clean it with bleach. After two hours of furious scrubbing, it was sparkling, and I put clean sheets on the entire bed.
That night, despite the lavender I stuffed in my pillow to help me sleep, I could still smell the vile human odour. I pulled off the sheets the following morning and smelled the mattress. Bleach. Nothing but bleach. It had to be something else. I began sniffing around the bed, and after a few minutes, I picked up the scent, that nasty scent. It was hanging in the air, just beneath the lavender. I grabbed the pillow, pulled off the pillowcase, and pressed my face into it, inhaling deeply. My whole body quivered in disgust. I sprang back, flinging the pillow across the room. It was revolting. Buckets of head sweat from hundreds of addicts, all concentrated in this little pillow.
In a fit of rage, I grabbed all the pillows from the room and ran up to the back of the farm, far away from the house so no one could see me. I was like a madman, two pillows in each hand, and I set light to them all. Insanely happy as I watched them burn, I felt like I’d conquered my greatest enemy.
The physical symptoms of withdrawal were bad, but manageable in comparison to what came next. Combined with chronic insomnia, the biggest challenge was coping with the intense waves of anxiety.
Having spent most of my life pumping drugs into my body, always to escape anxiety, I’d transformed my brain into a pleasure monster, devouring as much dopamine as it could find. Now that the drugs were gone, there was no more dopamine, and my body was screaming for more. That’s the essence of withdrawal, but now that I was near the end of my methadone detox, the monster wasn’t just hungry, he was ravenous, and he took it out on me in the form of anxiety.
Amplified to levels I’d never experienced before, it felt like electricity rippling up and down my body, or insects crawling under my skin. I wanted to run, but there was nowhere to go. One night I thought about climbing out of the window, but I was afraid of the bloody wardrobe, never mind the pitch-black night of the countryside.
I was now in the depths of withdrawal, and I couldn’t face my bedroom any longer. I hadn’t slept in days, and I spent the next six nights sitting at the kitchen table — all of the other rooms were locked. It was a small kitchen, about twelve feet by twenty, and although it was homely, it was stained, worn and old. Sitting at the end of the table, I wanted to run away from myself, escape the relentless anxiety, but there was nowhere to go. I must have done ten thousand laps of that little kitchen, but I couldn’t outrun my demons.
The nights stretched for miles, and I still remember the clock tick-tocking in slow motion. Again, it seemed like time would be my only saviour, but for the first time in my life, I didn’t think I would make it. I didn’t specifically think of suicide, but there was no end in sight; I couldn’t see a way out. In that instant, I realised why they locked the knives up at night.
I’m not even mildly religious, but that’s when I decided to pray. I’m not sure if I was going crazy, but after losing my nanny only a few months earlier, I could have sworn I felt her presence. She was a devout Catholic, so I just sat in the kitchen and asked her for strength. I’m still not religious, but maybe I should be, because I firmly believe my nanny was the one who got me through the final stages of heroin withdrawal.