Heroin Be the Death of Me

South Beach nightlife sophisticates know they can handle it. A little puff now and then won't kill you. No big deal.

Safer and more convenient, too. In fact, Jack and Debbie have just scored some heroin from their dealer at a prearranged spot near Epicure market on Alton Road. Back in the dim South Beach efficiency apartment shared by Mike and Debbie, the trio prepares to shoot up.

Debbie bubbles with excitement as she opens the teak box in which she keeps her needles and then arranges a small bottle of bleach, a dab of cotton, a candle, and a teaspoon. "Hurry up, hurry up," she giggles. As Mike heats the teaspoon -- filled with a small mound of heroin and water -- above the candle flame, Debbie does some energetic deep knee bends, her sundress billowing. Pretty and petite, with delicate bones and long brown hair, she smiles apologetically, explaining that she doesn't have any veins left in her arms, so she's going to shoot the heroin into her thigh.

Within a matter of minutes, all three have injected, cleaned their needles, and are now blissfully calm. Debbie huddles in a chair, her knees drawn up close to her chest. Asked how she feels, she smiles and languidly drops her head: "Um, nice." Several weeks earlier she and Mike had decided to quit. They even drove down to Key West, rented a hotel room, and waited out the painful, flulike symptoms of withdrawal. But after being back in Miami Beach a few days, they decided to try just a small amount of smack to see if they could get away with it. They couldn't.

Mike admits that he hates being hooked. He used to operate his own business and was making $40,000 a year. Though he had experimented with heroin occasionally, he only began shooting up regularly after he met Debbie. "My lifestyle has dropped a few notches," he says quietly. "I never thought I would live in a place like this. I feel trapped. I feel imprisoned by this drug. And it's not me, it's not in my makeup."

But if they don't shoot up every day, they immediately feel sick, and Mike will miss work at a local restaurant. Their bills will go unpaid. So now they are doing just a little bit in order to maintain. "It's kind of stupid," Debbie concedes. "But it makes you feel normal." Without the drug, she says she feels exhausted. "After five days, I may not be in pain any more, but I have no energy, and that drives me crazy."

Some users of the new heroin become addicted in a matter of weeks or even days. Others, like David, spend a couple of years as "chippers" -- social smokers -- until one morning they wake up with a voracious habit. Quitting, they discover, is so painful it only intensifies the longing for heroin's illusion of death.

Tall and lanky, with a full head of straight, dark hair, David would be conventionally handsome were it not for the ravages of unabated drug use. His skin is pale and oily, his shoulders hunched. Obsessed by the continual need to control his attraction to heroin and cut back his intake, his eyes have assumed the beseeching aspect of an animal caught in a trap. His movements are either too fast or too slow, as if powered by an unreliable battery. His drug dependency is so great that even gradual reduction causes physical distress. This past December he spent ten days in an Oklahoma rehabilitation program, part of an unsuccessful attempt to kick heroin. The experience, he says, was like surviving brutal combat: After the initial euphoria of kicking his addiction, he began to experience post-traumatic stress.

"I went for two and a half months with a dead body," David recalls. "I mean dead, like paralyzed. I was sleeping 48 hours a day." He struggled to keep up appearances and continued to plan and promote nightclub parties. But he was so exhausted that he'd sleep through his own events. "I tried everything -- antidepressants, wake-up soap, wake-up shampoo, wake-up rosemary, wake-up sea salts. There's an aromatizer by my bed that's supposed to be an energizer, and energizing drinks in the refrigerator. If you look in my bathroom, there are probably 30 products there. Everything energy, energy, energy. I just couldn't find it." He inhales from his cigarette and squints at the ceiling.

"What I fell into was cocaine. It started with one bump lasting for two hours and led to eight grams a night, just to stay awake. You can imagine! The whole month of March I did that. Just yesterday I was in the emergency room. My nose went all the way through -- the cocaine ate it. My nose has been in pain for a week now and I've been sticking it up there anyway. I tried taking apart an antibiotic and putting the cocaine in the capsule and eating it, and that didn't work. I tried drinking it. I tried everything for energy and it didn't work. The only way it works is through your stupid nose."

And as the pain spread outward from his nose, David sought relief. He found his way back to his heroin dealer.

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