4 Attitudes to Opiates
In contemporary Western society it takes a deliberate act of the will lasting between weeks and months to become dependent on heroin. It is a definite step, taken perhaps because of a feeling of uselessness and despair, but still something well this side of suicide. The addict must have some positive hope of his involvement in drugs; to him, if to no one else, they offer some improvement on his present condition.
At some point in time, then, he was offered a shot, and accepted it. What just then was he thinking? One ex-addict, an intelligent twenty-five-year-old journalist, says: `I was so desperate, I was in a mood to try anything. He said this would make things alright, so I took it.' In his case, the hope that heroin would help him was justified: 'The thing about H — it makes it unnecessary to worry about the things you have been worrying about. So you stop worrying, but the very fact you're not worrying means you don't have to worry. So after a bit I didn't need H, and I gave it up.' Another, an eighteen-year-old girl, who when talking about drugs affects so strong an American accent it is almost impossible to understand her, says: 'I was married at seventeen. One evening I went over to Fulham for a smoke. But there wasn't any, and I came back early. There the bastard was in bed with this bird. I felt so terrible I went back to this pusher and begged him for a shot.'
These stories tally with the American evidence on the first steps in addiction, though one should remember it is in the addict's interest to dramatize the circumstances of his beginning, and to minimize his own conscious choice. The ordinary person wouldn't think of using heroin to solve emotional problems; nor would he expect to be able to get away with a single shot. The addict, one must suppose, was potentiated towards the drug; his expectations must have differed radically from those of the rest of us. For one thing, he must have known, and have got used to, heroin as a reliever of anxiety. This argues contact with addicts and the addict culture, a contact that is anyway necessary to get illicit supplies.
For some, addiction started with the need to help themselves in an emotional crisis. What came afterwards, in the pain of the moment — so they would have us believe — was hardly considerg. For others the sequel must have been more apparent. To them the drug-dependent life must have appeared attractive in itself, both from observation and from its image in our folk-lore. It is perhaps worth considering briefly the mythology of addiction; the stories people tell about it must be important influences on the decisions of new addicts.
We hardly have an indigenous junkie culture. The Man with the Golden Arm, The Connection, the beatniks are all importations. To find the name and the image of junkie, we have to go to the city bohemias of New York and Chicago where the legends
With the Harrison Act outlawing narcotics in 1914 and a rising atmosphere of repression in America that led to Prohibition in 1920, the situation was set for the invention of the junkie as an anti-hero:
They call him Jerry the Junker He's down in Chinatown
Raggetty clothes and torn shoes How that boy can sing the blues Everything just seems to ooze From Jerry the Junker
The Jury found him,guilty And sentenced him to die ...
They strapped him in the electric chair
'Was time for him to die .
Ten thousand volts went right through him
He didn't bat an eye.
They tried a thousand times They heard the warden cry Hey, what's the use, turn off the juice
My electric bill's too high.'
This irreverent turned into the dark, helpless, oriental dream; figure who magically soars in squalor above the capitalist world, transforming its cruelty and materialism to his spiritual advantage: Dean Moriarty, of Kerouac's On the Road, pirouetting in a bourgeois sitting-room:
. . . they all sat around looking at Dean with lowered and hating eyes, and he stood on the carpet in the middle of them and giggled - he just giggled. He made a little dance. His bandage was getting dirtier all the time; it began to flop and unroll. I suddenly realized that Dean, by virtue of his enormous series of sins, was becoming the Idiot, the Imbecile, the Saint of the lot.2
By being mad and naughty enough one escapes completely frchm the deadening links of the middle-class moral code and regains one's innocence. There was something in common between the beatnik and the holiness of the madman in Muslim cultures: one free of earth's chains, possessed by a being more than man-size. Moriarty is unique; for him drugs are unnecessary, but with them even the mediocre spirit can rise to his heights.
Inverted, this view of drugs is a let-out: 'Man, wouldn't I love to lead a decent life - all us junkies would. But man! Don't you see? I'm a junkie, I'm hooked, I can't get away, I can't wash/earn a living/get up/make the breakfast/pay income tax. I need my shots. Oh monkey, get off my back, man.'
This is one image of drugs - as a release. Another sees them as the mark of an esoteric world where few dare to go. One of the first 'addicts' I met was a pale eighteen-year-old from Leeds who had stupefied himself on barbiturates, but insisted he was a real junkie. He carried, to prove the point, a gigantic chromium-plated veterinary syringe for injecting high-class cows. He had never used it, nor would dare to.* Zinberg and Lewis quote the case of an American jazz musician who was admitted to hospital a second time with hepatitis. Since he used junkie slang in his speech, it was suspected that he might be an addict - always a delicate point in American medicine where ignorance might lead one to treat withdrawal as the symptoms of quite another disease, but inquiry could cause nasty scenes. This character admitted shamefully that he had tried heroin twice and hadn't enjoyed it either time; he begged his doctors not to tell his wife or family since he would lose the status of being hooked. His need for psychic dependence on a drug - any drug - was so great that they could get him to abide by the regimen for hepatitis only by convincing him this too was being hooked and added to his strength and character.3
The same sort of effect in a suburban American environment:
Then came the first break. My good friend's mother found his paraphernalia - you know, needle, eye-dropper. She went to my father, and my father took me for a ride. He was very understanding. I finally broke down, admitted I was using drugs, said I never would again. And of course, I no sooner left him than I made a phone call to my friend - 'You better cool it' -' and that night we got loaded.... So here we are, alien figures in the broad community. And somebody's mother called the police and they busted in an apartment where we were sitting, fixing, and it hit the newspapers. Because this was something new in this community. And it rocked them. Here - my God! - children in a reasonably well-to-do community using drugs. The high school was rocked. Right off the ground. The worst thing they'd had was hub-cap stealing. So - the arrest, go to jail, and of course in jail meeting a lot of people, making new connexions, friends, where to get drugs later, how to go about it, new ways of making money, and - you know, don't pretend you're naive, pretend you're pretty slick, because that's the scene here. Then going away. To Lexington, Kentucky. Come back and my father sent me to a private school and for a few months I wasn't using drugs. Thought about it often. Thought about my old friend and wished he was around so I could show him what I knew now ara result of my nine months at Lex. I could really put him down.
He wasn't hip any more . . .4
The need of the young to be hip (addicts' jargon meaning to be an initiate, to have a sore on the hip from lying on boards to smoke opium; hence hipster skirts and trousers) probably prompts many English teenagers into experimenting with drugs. This reflects the still appalling lack of cultural opportunity in this country for teenagers, particularly from the lower classes, who in a world of experts and expertise feel doomed to stay numbered units in a mass. The need of the young for individuation and identity is acute; drugs offer them one solution. It is unfortunate that this motive is likely to be most compelling for just those inadequate, unsure, standardless personalities who seem to be particularly susceptible to drug dependence. Here are two London comprehensive school sixth-formers talking about the kids at their school who use drugs (the Greyfriars slang is their own).
It's always the real weeds, the soppy little idiots who think it's big and smart to pull out a handful of pills; and if one of them gets a shot of horse the others just die of envy, and he goes around showing off, taking his friends into the lavatory to see the needle mark on his arm.
It's pathetic, I can tell you.
Drug dependence is a very complicated and multi-sided problem; there are other attractive images besides escape or glamour. One perpetual problem of adolescents is to find new forms of rebellion which will vex their elders without hurting themselves. The favourite adult image of the crazed drug fiend insolently slipping the needle into his arm, then with fearful passions, his eyes glowing like radio valves, sallying forth to wreak his filthy will on young and old alike, plays straight into the teenagers' hands. A flirtation with drugs is a marvellous way of promoting alarm among the grown-ups.
Another image of drugs, which is energetically put about as a deterrent, shows the squalor, misery and degradation of the life they cause. This too can attract, and perhaps powerfully. The potential addict, identityless, unloved, mumbles to himself: 'If it can't go right, I'll make it all go as wrong as possible'; hoping by his immolation to force others to recognize and help him. A perceptive girl who lives among addicts in Paddington says, 'I think with a lot of them it's a sort of silent cry for help'; an expression of the urge everyone has to pile on the agony until someone has to pick us up. Here again the American image of the junkie is the operative one, the ultimate in degeneration. Alex Trocchi describes it, from experience:
Junkies in New York are often desperate. To be a junkie is to live in a mad-house. Laws, police force, armies, mobs of indignant citizenry crying mad dog. We are perhaps the weakest minority that ever existed; forced into poverty, filth, squalor, without even the protection of a legitimate ghetto ...5
The self-indulgent melancholy of the adolescent is anyway one of his sharpest pleasures. The Rolling Stones sing 'This will be the last time ... I'm sorry girl, but I can't stay ... there's too much pain and too much sorrow.' To embark on heroin is, in the eyes of the world, to commit suicide; and the addict has the pleasure of being around to see the effect of finality. He hugs the catastrophic image of the junkie; there is perhaps not so much difference between him and the young Christian martyr: both by desperation invite the saving hand of the Father.
The British Addict's Life
The new addicts' manner of living seems so much a mechanism for stating their attitudes towards themselves and society that it seems more appropriate to discuss it under this heading than any other. In the Welfare State it is difficult to reach the heights of self-immolation of the classical American drug user. Heroin and cocaine are available free, in maintenance doses, from Drug Treatment Centres (see below, p. 176). By the middle of 1970, the new control system had begun to bite, and the black market price of heroin had risen to £4 to £5 from the £4 a grain it had cost over the previous five years. As a result, users switched to other drugs, particularly the more easily obtainable barbiturates which could be got in large quantities from G.P.s and ordinary hospital out-patient departments by telling a few simple lies. In law an addict under the care of a doctor is sick; if the doctor will issue the necessary certificate he can draw National Assistance and, if his card is stamped, National Insurance benefit. However, this probably seldom happens, although it would be cheaper for society to finance the addict lavishly than to let him make his own living by selling surplus drugs to converts. It is easy enough for him to make £2 a day at least in this manner. Shoplifting too is a not insuperably difficult way of supplementing one's income, and in fact many big shops have at best a neutral attitude to this offence: it does prove the attractiveness of the goods displayed.
The drug-dependent personality shows a strong self-destructive streak; one feels it is almost difficult to find the situations in England for it to work on.
It has been remarked that the most striking characteristic of the new adolescent addicts is their desire for publicity. The inquirer, thinking that it is going to be difficult to meet drug users, is immediately overwhelmed by them showing off their spiritual sores like medieval beggars; willing to discuss their most intimate affairs at exhaustive, and soon tedious, length. It is clearly no use being drug dependent in London unless one is seen to be so. At midnight at Boots in Piccadilly Circus the young line up ostentatiously in the light of the neons; at John Bell & Croyden's they wait discreetly inside, slouched smelly in the over-stuffed armchairs that accommodate other customers during the day. They wait for their next day's prescriptions to be dispensed; at the stroke of midnight they are released. The night I went, a policeman recommended the group of phone boxes in Vere Street, beside the little church. There was a tousle-haired lad spreading his works out on the shelf dyer the directories, brilliantly lit and framed in the dark street. He slowly cooked up his dose over a stub of candle, moving to keep his back to me. Then with quite a sense of drama, he threw down his trousers and stabbed himself in the buttock with a big shiny syringe. Then he pulled up his trousers, collected his apparatus and limped briskly away. Nothing could have been more calculated for display; someone who is still injecting intra-muscularly is hardly likely to need his shot so badly he can't wait to get home.
The knowledgeable addict — in this case a writer — pursues a different system. He entertains his visitors with the ritual of the fix; boils up a pill of heroin in a medicine bottle — tension, will the glass break in the flame? Then he wraps a mysterious, spittle-wetted strip of paper round the nose of an eye-dropper, produces a hypodermic needle and shoves it over the paper. Then he sucks up the dissolved heroin into the dropper and balances it precariously on the edge of the table. Another cliff-hanging situation: will it fall'? But the intrepid Scotsman coolly removes his belt — more tension, the trousers — then winds it round his left bicep. Pulling it tight with his teeth, he massages up a vein in the crook of his elbow, and then with great delicacy slides the needle into the swollen vessel. Here he explains the advantage of the dropper — the pressure of the thumb and forefinger in expelling the liquid balance each other and act across the axis of the needle, so it neither goes in nor comes out. The pressure needed to work an ordinary syringe tends to drive the needle through the vein and into the elbow joint where the heroin does little good, and invariably causes pain. That all the drug cannot be squeezed out of the eye-dropper is also turned to advantage: the belt is released and the arm allowed to fall; pulsing, the dropper fills with blood. He squeezes this back, lets it fill, squeezes and whips the needle out letting a little spurt of blood run down his arm. He dries this 'splash', conversing casually of other matters.
Many addicts here — where it is no offence top' needles and syringes — carry a set about in an ornate spectacle case. Often they have two or three barrels and half a dozen needles, and spend as much time selecting the one to use as a golfer over his clubs. It is part of the daring never to sterilize the needles or to wash out the barrels; most of them occasionally get abcesses, blood poisoning or jaundice. But they claim to be unusually healthy — perhaps because they cannot feel the aches of ordinary mortality. In spite of this internal well-being it is easy enough, by sleeping rough and eating irregularly, wearing dirty clothes and not bothering to shave or comb one's hair, to look adequately dilapidated. 'I wear these dark glasses,' said one who came to tea with me in December 'just so people know I'm a junkie. You've got to work at the image, man.' And another, who refused to be photographed with her dark glasses on in case her parents should identify her, insisted on having a picture taken of her eyes: 'Them's real junkie's eyes, man,' she cried as she whipped off the shades.
One of the problems of dealing with drug users is that only by keeping them under observation in a ward for several days can one be sure that they are in fact dependent on drugs. Several of the 'addicts' I met seemed to be claiming the status without risking the substance, and perhaps were using the drug society as a way of escaping from middle-class living. There is a common and not unhealthy adolescent urge to get away from the paraphernalia of adult life, and to try existence at basics. The ex-addict quoted on page 50 said: 'As long as you eat and sleep, you're ahead of the game. Anything else in this life is a bonus.' Some young people get away from civilization by joining university expeditions to Samarkand; others buy a needle.
The business of getting drugs, and the very positive act of injecting them, becomes the way and the purpose of life for many users. Often it seems that the ritual is more important than the drug: one who was photographed for a magazine article ran through the routine — at his own suggestion — five times, injecting , himself with tap water each time. When hard drugs became scarce during 1970, users were reported to be injecting themselves with a bizarre variety of things: crushed barbiturate capsules, aspirin, milk, and even mayonnaise. Every shot is, to the person dependent on drugs for his satisfactions, something beneficial and tangible, wrung from a world that theoretically does not want him to have it. The dose gives manifold satisfaction. The person who is willing to devote his waking hours to organizing or talking about this performance, as many addicts do, is not surprisingly limited in more conventional social directions. As one moves over the spectrum of addictions, from those who are content with late hours and loud music to those who need pills, cannabis, heroin — that is, as the social machine sorts out the more disturbed — so one finds greater single-mindedness and less ability to relate to others. The couple described here, Karen and Hector, are not heroin users. In fact their chosen drug is metheclrine, an amphetamine with quite the reverse pharmacological effects. But they live in the generalized drug society of Paddington and Bayswater and show its character so clearly that they are better models than many of their dopier friends.
A week after Hector had come to tea, we visited him at the room in one of the new blocks of expensive bed-sitters by the Bayswater Road, which he shared with his girlfriend Karen. They'd saved up their evening shot until we arrived, so they could do it in public. They were both chattering like children, each intent on his own story and paying no attention to the other. He says, with the air of one announcing that he'd won a prize: 'You know last week I said I was going to knock off the methedrine? Well, I've decided not to.' They get out huge anaesthetist's syringes, and Karen gets set for her injection with all the fuss of a prima donna at her toilette. She uses a fine chiffon scarf, lifted from Harrods, as a tourniquet. She is a lean blonde, about twenty-two, wearing a dress by Quant. With an ineradicable tinge of Whitechapel in her voice, she claims to be a by-blow of aristocracy. She luxuriously tickles the enormously swollen vein in her left elbow with the needle, slipping it in, then pulling it out again. After their shots they begin to talk louder and louder, pacing the tiny room like caged animals. 'What's it like?' says Hector. 'You know butterflies in your stomach? This is like having a golden eagle there.' He tries to make coffee and gets muddled; I take over and surreptitiously use hot water out of the geyser, because Karen has a reputation for spiking people's drinks with methedrine — a sleepless night is not desired. Once she stabbed a girl in the bottom while they were standing at a bar, and gave her an enormous shot.
Soon the noise became unbearable, and we left them to their happy, uncomprehending chatter.
The next evening Hector rings up in misery. Someone has stolen all their drugs, can they come over? I say, yes of course. He asks if I'll fetch them, and I say no because my wife's away with the car; he asks if I'll pay for a taxi, and I say no because she has all the money. So they come in a taxi, bound in cheerfully saying there he is, pay him. Since I can't, the taxi-driver goes away and gets a policeman. The three argue on the doorstep. In the sitting-room Karen turns out her handbag and sorts through her shoplifted heirlooms: a pair of white sea-boot socks, three presentation pen stands and sets, some battered paperbacks, including Camus' La Peste in French, five lighters — she wants to sell me one — a morocco spectacle case containing her works, and a green cardboard box full of empty methedrine capsules. The policeman looks in sourly, and Vies to interest me in the cab driver's trouble. Then Hector givei him the address of his mother. Earlier he'd claimed that her knowing he was a junkie had broken him up.
Hector sits on the sofa groaning for a fix, rubbing his foreh and scuffing his toes on the floor. She goes through the emp phials, carried for just such an emergency, looking for a few dr of the drug. But her technique is oddly self-frustrating: she ho
the little glass tubes open end down and shoves the needle up into the top —just where you would expect not to find any lurlcin drops. In fact she is not being constructive in the real situation but imitating a nurse drawing an injection from a rubber-lidded drug phial, such as one might see on Emergency-Ward 10. '0i: Hector darling, you are so unhappy, I am so sorry for you.' She finds a couple of drops and elegantly shoots them into her own, arm. She takes a dislike to me: 'Oh baby, why did we come here? He doesn't smoke, he doesn't turn on, what a drag he is. I'm so depressed — you know what! mean?' He asks for a sandwich, and, she eats it. He treats me like a whore just because I'm a junkie and I sleep around. I've never been so humiliated in my life.' Then, in a much nicer voice, 'Can I have another sandwich please?'
Hector suggests they walk up to the West End and get some , more methedrine on their new prescriptions. Then they can sell some and get a taxi hack. Oh baby, you know I'd like to help you, you know that, but it can't be done, baby. I can't possibly walk all that way,' He suggests that he goes and comes back for her. She shoots an ugly look over her sandwich at me. 'I certainly won't be left alone with that' — Hector, defeated, starts sterilizing a sore on his arm with dabs of whisky and water. It's obvious this situation can drag on all night, so I break into the children's piggy-bank and get enough pennies for their bus fare.
Society's Attitudes to Junk
It is easy to take the addict at his word and grossly exaggerate the slavery and squalor of his life. It is an error that serves the unconscious ends of both the drug user and society.
The addict likes this image of himself because, in the main, one of his unconscious purposes in using drugs is to advertise himself in the most pitiful and hopeless light. He prefers heroin, or whichever drug he uses, to be seen as an irresistible enslavement, because this exonerates him from responsibility for his own condition. His family share the same view: 'He was a nice boy, but he got hooked,' they might say, and vow vengeance on the pusher who ensnared him — another figure necessary to the mythology. Society too prefers to think of addiction in terms of enslavement and pushers because, again, this version of the story excuses us, and makes it unnecessary to do anything very much to rehabilitate the drug user. The idea of inevitable progression from amphetamines to cannabis to opiates, though discredited by the police and the Home Office here and by authorities in America, is still another public defence mechanism which so diffuses responsibility that none have to bear it themselves. All these ideas are energetically expressed in newspaper accounts of drug use; as a journalist, I am persuaded that they reflect the feelings of a good proportion of readers.
Here, for example, is The Times:
PUSHERS WHO LEAD TO A SLOW SUICIDE
... Yet there remains an increasing progression from amphetamines on to heroin and cocaine, helped by smoothly operating pushers.... 'I had been heavily on pills. They were not enough, and a fix was offered free. I took it and was hooked. The lift and feeling of detachment from a world I didn't want ,to face became everything. The Clap who gave me the fix then charged higher and higher prices. I paid as much as £15. I registered with a doctor and my appetite increased. I would do anything, commit any crime for drugs.'
He recalled' the suspicion he felt for everything and everyone, the vileness of blood spurting from a punctured vein on to a lavatory wall, the fear of being poisoned by a fumbled injection with a dirty needle.6
One suspects that The Times' reporter was, like so many who inquire from drug users, told an Irishman's tale. LIS at that time bought fifteen grains; it is unlikely that anyone could work up a habit of that size before registering with a doctor. This figure also implies spending on drugs at the rate of 0,000 a year: a rate of earning achieved only by the more successful men of business and crime, and certainly not by a doped layabout.
The piece goes on: 'Case histories were numerous and inevitably tragic, ending in suicide or complete physical wreckage.' This is perhaps because the untragic ones were not worth repeating, and because the drug addict's life is like a sieve: those who try heroin once and give it up, or who wean themselves from it after a few months, vanish from the scene. They have no reason to publicize themselves. The fit are winnowed out, and one is left with a very visible remainder of spectacularly inadequate personalities. Later the article describes the 'pathetic group of broken people' arriving at the midnight chemist to get their drugs. Even this presents a biased picture, because the sensible addict, who has not overdrawn his prescription, has no need to get tomorrow's dose at 00.01 a.m. He is asleep in his bed; only the improvident are there.
Drugs and their horrors turn up regularly as sensational features in the News of the World and The People and, regrettably, this Times article. Even news stories about drugs are coloured in the same way, as a few headlines show: YOUTHS BUY SEX DRUG FOR KICRS,7 is a neat piece of sub-editor's work; and nicely loaded suggestion comes again from The Times: DRUGS
PREFERRED TO SEX BY YOUNG? ADOLESCENT REBELLION.$ GIRLS STRIPPED IN SEARCH FOR DR uos,$ neatly links drug use with more basic and general interests.
Florid reporting, pointing out the evils of drugs in the liveliest fashion, is justified by popular commentators on the grounds that it acts as a deterrent. But it is likely that such a picture acts instead as an attraction to just the unbalanced people who are likely to become drug-dependent. Moreover, it makes it difficult for people to deal rationally with the more adjusted addict, who is prepared to work and play a more normal social part. It also confuses the distinction between drugs of quite different social potential. Everyone's interests would be better served by a more sober and rational attitude. The drug addict's presentation of himself as an infernal circus act is part of his malady; we should know better than to collaborate with him.
By 1969, perhaps because so many people's children had become actual, rather than potential junkies, boredom had set in. Press stories about addiction to heroin were very rare, the camera teams had gone to Vietnam and then Biafra. But if less was being publicly said, far mote was being done. Addiction had become a rationalized industry.
*See p. 58, needle addiction.