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The International Writers Magazine:

Chasing the Dragon
Will Collins

‘Brown’, ‘Skag’, ‘Smack’, ‘Junk’, ‘Gear’, ‘Shit’, ‘Dope’, ‘H’, ‘Horse’, ‘Curry & Rice’; never once was the word ‘heroin’ mentioned. Wayne first ‘chased the dragon’ at the age of twelve; gently fried heroin on architected tinfoil (sometimes with butter) above the flame of a lighter, inhaling the smoke, normally through a rolled banknote, for the purpose of intoxication.

Wayne’s average looking, just over six feet tall with thick short brown hair and is wearing jeans with a t-shirt. ‘You can tell I never injected,’ he says, ‘by the fact that I’m wearing a t-shirt.’ He displayed his inner arms subtly as evidence; added: ‘I wouldn’t be able to wear one in front of people if I had tram marks all the way up and down my arms.’ The fingers on his right hand, nails chewed, tapped out a frenetic, complicated rhythm on the glass coffee table in front of him as he spoke.

He chain-smoked throughout the interview; frequently visited a silver bin in the kitchen to empty his ashtray, wiping it nervously with toilet roll each time. Wayne used heroin ‘for about ten years, maybe eleven or even twelve.’ Now thirty-nine, he lives alone in a small, one bedroom council flat. Images of the spiritual are ubiquitous within his world: a painted illustration of Jesus greets visitors as they enter through the door; a simple wooden cross hangs at the end of a long, narrow hallway; the Madonna, complete with serpent underfoot, stands tall on a sideboard; half a dozen Buddha ornaments cover wooden surfaces; a golden ankh hangs above a storage heater. In his lounge there are two black leather sofas, likely from Argos; in the corner there’s an old television set, practically an antique, which appears to be the focal point of the room.

‘I was in this squat with my mate…some girl offered it to me, so I took it.’ He couldn’t remember her name, or exactly where it was, or much of what happened. He’d previously used cannabis and tried both magic mushrooms and LSD. ‘I’d always wanted to take drugs,’ he admitted through crooked, stained teeth, ‘and always did exactly what I wanted.’
His friend was violently sick and never touched heroin again; for Wayne it was the beginning of a torrid love affair.
After a gulp from a mug, Wayne recalled his initial experiences of the drug: ‘At first there’s this sinking feeling; deep inner peace; an immense feeling of relaxation that pulls you into it like the tide of an ocean; you drift into it almost instantly; any pain or worry, all that fucking shit is gone in a second.’ Some music videos portray the sensation particularly accurately, such as Comfortably Numb, by The Scissor Sisters, which depicts sustained underwater free-diving: ‘Come on now…I hear you’re feelin’ down…well I can ease your pain…and get you on your feet again…’ are some of the words.
So does the film Trainspotting , specifically: ‘The sinking into the carpet. The sinking, it’s just like that.

Wayne slouched back into the sofa, arms by his sides and rolled his head back to illustrate, then sat back upright to resume staring at the blank television screen. Contemplating the screen yielded: ‘It was even better than I expected.’ Initially, he thought he’d try it for a couple of weeks, ‘to have some fun.’ He thought it’d be a phase, after which he’d move on; by the end of the fortnight he was hooked.

Wayne’s body language exaggerated as he shared tales of some of his ‘most trippy’ experiences, at his ‘most high’: ‘I saw massive bursts of lights like fireworks coming out of the top of the stage at Glastonbury. The music was blasting. These firework light things were fizzling, I was covered in mud…’; ‘Every time I had to pass the window I got on all fours. I thought that there was a sniper outside waiting to shoot me.’; ‘Me and this other friend both shared the same experience once…’; ‘…ended up hiding under the dining room table for about three days.’ One cigarette was lit from the end of another. Sat in a cloud of smoke he rolled back his head, laughed, slapped his jeans and continued to recount bizarre tales, then add, ‘…know what I mean?’

He had a troubled childhood. His mother, a gypsy woman with fourteen siblings, left home Christmas Eve 1970: Wayne was two years old. She’s been having an affair with another man living in the same street for over a year. He’s hardly seen her since, and ‘doesn’t want to know her now.’ In his earliest memory of her he recounted his elder sister throwing herself on top of him to protect her young brother from a beating with the heel of a stiletto: she took it instead of Wayne. He was brought up mainly by his grandparents; his father, a single parent and plumber, worked every hour he could to support his family of four young children.

The twenty pound bags became more and more frequent. Within six months he was spending fifty pounds a day on heroin. He began robbing, mainly from houses in his own neighbourhood. He ‘picked up’ a VCR here, a TV there, jewellery: anything he could quickly and easily covert into heroin. As his tolerance developed, he needed to take increasing amounts to achieve the sense of euphoria and well being he had become accustomed to. His dealer began to accept goods as well as cash in exchange for ‘fixes’. It didn’t stop there; he began to mix heroin with crack to maintain its effects. His costs further escalated, forcing him to find new ways of funding his habit. That’s when he became an ‘escort’.
Looking around his flat you wouldn’t guess Wayne was, or is, a heroin addict: there’s a remarkably clean beige carpet throughout; dark wood bookshelves crammed with detective stories; shiny surfaces; arty pictures on the wall; the scent of lemon cleaning products. The only symbol of past suffering comes in the form of icons. He hadn’t sold the television set, didn’t sleep on a damp mattress on the floor and the place wasn’t crawling in cat shit. He admits to having nightmares, ‘frequently’, although he doesn’t want to discuss them. Instead he discusses his children, two sons, without mentioning their names. When the first was born the nurse told him the placenta was the unhealthiest she’d ‘ever seen.’ Shortly after the baby was discharged, Wayne left him in a local shop, only realising what he’d done after reaching his home. He was ‘out of it at the time.’ Wayne remembers ‘planning them’, ‘wanting them’; his face twitches as he does, then he switches topic.

Wayne’s income improved though ‘escorting’. He’d pick up ‘clients’ through an agency, telephone chat-lines and desperate looking people at the end of the night in gay bars. ‘Most of them were sad lonely old men,’ he said, ‘the thought of them touching me, running their hands over me makes me feel sick now, but at the time I was only thinking of my next hit.’ ‘I took a fair few beatings during that time,’ he admitted, was ‘held hostage for three days once.’ Wayne bit his lip after he said that, like he felt he might have gone too far or told me something he’s never previously admitted, then sat in silence for a moment or two staring at the floor between his legs, tapping.

He began mixing crack with his regular doses of heroin to prevent the feeling of cold turkey; at his worst he was spending over a hundred and fifty pounds each and every day on ‘curry and rice’. No days off for birthdays or Christmas; Wayne was a committed and dedicated user.

Wayne didn’t make the decision to get help himself; he was forced into it. He owed one of his many dealers money and promised to pay it, but didn’t show. His dealer went straight round to Wayne’s father’s mobile home and stirred up as much trouble as he could, telling Wayne’s father about his son ‘sleeping with old men for money’. He said if he didn’t get the money he was owed within 24 hours, he would set his mobile home on fire. Wayne’s father paid. ‘I had sick all through my hair and all over the bed; there were bits of tinfoil all over the floor; I hadn’t seen or spoken to anyone for days’: Wayne at this point had no idea of what was going on around him. ‘Then this banging at the door started. I wasn’t sure if it was real. Heroin does that: makes you paranoid, especially when you take it with crack’: the banging continued. When Wayne woke up it was in a hospital bed. His weight had dropped to seven stones, his gaunt face had all but collapsed and he had no idea where he was. Albert, Wayne’s father, had knocked down the door to his flat and called an ambulance. Wayne was admitted immediately. He made direct eye contact for the first time as he told me: ‘It’s not a fun drug, heroin. I’ll never go back to that, no matter what…’

Wayne now spends his days laid on his black leather sofa watching endless programmes on an antiquated television set. ‘The Wright Stuff’, ‘Property Ladder’, ‘This Morning’, ‘To Buy Or Not To Buy’, ‘Selling Houses’, ‘Countdown’, ‘Trisha’: anything that keeps him entertained. He also loves detective novels; judging by his bookshelf Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus is his favourite. Each day he takes twelve prescribed tablets, including diazepam, olanzapin, epilem, tamezepam, sertraline and flouroxatine. The package leaflet for olanzapin states that it is an antipsychotic, ‘used to treat a condition with symptoms such as feeling high, having excessive amounts of energy, needing much less sleep than usual, talking very quickly with racing ideas and sometimes severe irritability.’ A significant proportion of the leaflet outlines possible side effects, including: ‘unusual movement (especially of the face or tongue)’, ‘problems with speech’ and ‘severe stomach pain’. For a specific patient profile the reading is bleaker: ‘stroke’, ‘incontinence’, ‘hallucinations’, ‘trouble walking…some fatal cases have been reported.’ This combination is to keep him calm, sane and balanced. In conjunction with prescribed medication, he sees a psychiatrist fortnightly, a doctor weekly, and a social worker monthly. He is regularly admitted to a local psychiatric hospital; one admission exceeded six months.

‘Would I do it again?’ He looks around him for a moment, bewildered, like no-one has been listening to him. ‘Heroin fucks everything up,’ he said, ‘fucks everything up: your life, your health, your family. There’s just no need for it.’ Wayne never shed a tear throughout the interview, but it was at this point that he came closest. To suppress negative emotion Wayne swept his left hand up to one side, theatrically held up his palm at one side and chortled. ‘I’ve been in a straightjacket…padded name it’; after laughing at himself he quickly regained composure.
Wayne now spends his nights smoking skunk. He often takes as many as thirty ecstasy pills during the course of a weekend. Amphetamines and cocaine are regular accompaniments, with alcohol, of course; vodka is his favourite, but he’s not fussed. To conclude he stated in a flat, frank tone: ‘If I could, I’d spend my whole life off my face. I just can’t afford to. And I don’t do it on heroin.’
Will Collins Feb 2008
Will is studying Creative Writing at Winchester University
- UK

The premise for ‘Chasing the Dragon’ came from reading Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater , an account of the pleasures and pains of consuming large quantities of laudanum on a daily basis. In de Quincey’s day opium, which laudanum is a derivative of, could be legally sourced from most retailers, including grocers, bakers, tailors, publicans and street vendors: it was not until the 1886 Pharmacy Act that the exclusive right to market and sell opium was granted only to licensed pharmacists and chemists. Opium at the time formed the basis of a number of widely used folk remedies, making it as popular and unexceptional as paracetamol or aspirin today and, apparently, as widely available as heroin is in today‘s society. Since the publication of Confessions society’s knowledge and understanding of drug use has improved; I sought to improve mine for this piece through research and reading. Obvious points such as a modern parlance, describing drug use and its effects, such as ‘addiction’, ‘tolerance’ and ‘withdrawal’ have entered our language with an updated or revised meaning relating to drug misuse; our understanding of the physiological, psychological and social aspects of drug use is vastly improved; creative use of the poppy, however, remains a social constant. Its effects is what this piece investigates.

With the question: ‘How came any reasonable being to subject himself to such a yoke of misery…?’ as foundation, I sought suitable candidates in a similar situation today to interview. After contacting a Community Drug Service and gaining approval to place an advertisement in their centre five people made contact. I interviewed one face to face: Wayne. He was the most frank and honest on the telephone, and agreed to meet shortly after our initial telephone conversation. Although reluctant at first he agreed to be interviewed in his home; this added a great deal to the piece as interviewing him in a familiar and safe environment helped him relax. As a result, Wayne largely speaks for himself in the text.

Wayne, like many drug users, obviously still finds life a challenge; this was evident from early on in the interview. As well as constant fidgeting his verbal accounts were at times random, making it a challenge to follow his point or comprehend his logic. He frequently flitted from one subject to the next, often naming people he hadn’t previously mentioned with no explanation: the components of his ‘confessions’ were therefore a challenge to interpret and write.

Artificial Paradises: A Drugs Reader, written by Mike Jay. Published by Penguin (1999).
Chernobyl Strawberries, written by Vesan Goldsworthy. Published by Atlantic (2006).
Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, written by Thomas de Quincy. Published by Penguin (2003).
McCarthy’s Bar, written by Pete McCarthy. Published by Hodder and Stoughton (2007).
Opium and the People: Opiate Use n Nineteenth-Century England, written by Virginia Berridge and Martin Booth. Published by New Haven (1987).

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